NYON, Switzerland, July 5 – Arsenal must overcome Serie A opposition in the shape of Udinese if Arsene Wenger’s team are to make it to the Champions League group stages for the 14th successive season.
The Gunners were pitted against the Italian side in the draw for the Champions league play-offs held at UEFA headquarters in Nyon on Friday.
This will be a first ever meeting between Arsenal, the beaten finalists in 2006, and Udinese, who last made it into the group stage that same season.
Friday’s draw also featured two previous winners of Europe’s top club competition, with Bayern Munich facing Swiss side FC Zurich and former titleholders from Portugal Benfica up against Dutch league runners-up FC Twente.
Bayern have been crowned champions of Europe four times and their coach Jupp Heynckes said: “This is a game we can win and an interesting task. We have a great opportunity to move into the group stage.”
But Heynckes insisted he would not be taking the Swiss team lightly.
“Swiss football is very strong,” he said.
“Last season, Zurich finished just one point behind Basel, that says a lot for the quality of the club.
“We will be watching them this weekend. Sometimes the supposedly weaker is actually the stronger one.”
He was relieved however to avoid being drawn against Russia’s Rubin Kazan, declaring: “That would have been a long trip for us”.
The Russian outfit, who caused a stir when beating Barcelona 2-1 in the group stage two seasons ago, will not prove easy pickings for Lyon of France.
Rubin booked their play-off place with a 4-1 aggregate qualifying win over Dynamo Kiev.
Malmo, who knocked out Scottish giants Rangers in the third qualifying round this week, were rewarded with a match-up against Croatian league champions Dynamo Zagreb.
Spain’s Villarreal cross swords with Danish side Odense, who have never reached the Champions League group stage but who booked their play-off ticket with a thrilling 5-4 aggregate win over Panathinaikos of Greece.
Arsenal are forced to go through the play-offs after their end of term collapse which resulted in a fourth place finish in the Premier League last season.
The first leg at their Emirates stadium will be staged with Wenger serving a one-match touchline ban for using “inappropiate language” at referee Massimo Busacca in the wake of Arsenal’s second-round exit to Barcelona at the Nou Camp last season.
The Swiss official had controversially shown Robin van Persie a second yellow card for shooting at goal just one second after he had blown the whistle for offside – the Dutch striker claimed he had not heard it due to the noise of the 95,000-plus crowd.
The 10-men of Arsenal, who had beaten Barcelona in the first leg, went on to lose 3-1 to crash out of Europe.
Midfielder Samir Nasri was also sanctioned by UEFA for his outburst at Busacca, and will not be available, nor will van Persie, whose suspension was carried over into Arsenal’s next European tie.
Their two-legged encounter with Udinese falls between some demanding home assignments against Newcastle, Liverpool and Manchester United.
The first legs will be played on August 16/17 with the second legs on August 23/24.
The ten play-off winners will then join the 22 automatically qualified teams for the group stage draw to be held in Monaco on August 25.
The final for this season’s competition will be held at Bayern Munich’s stadium in May next year.
Champions League play-off draw
Wisla Krakow (POL) v Apoel Nicosia (CYP)
Maccabi Haifa (ISR) v Genk (BEL)
Dinamo Zagreb (CRO) v Malmo (SWE)
FC Copenhagen (DEN) v FC Viktoria Plzen (CZE)
FC BATE Borisov (BLR) v Sturm Graz (AUT)
OB Odense (DEN) v Villarreal (ESP)
FC Twente (NED) v Benfica (POR)
Arsenal (ENG) v Udinese (ITA)
Bayern Munich (GER) v FC Zurich (SUI)
Lyon (FRA) v Rubin Kazan (RUS)