Arsenal began the post Cesc Fabregas era with victory on Tuesday as they beat Serie A side Udinese 1-0 in their Champions League playoff round first leg clash, but it was a far from convincing win.
An early goal by Theo Walcott proved just enough, but Udinese had enough chances to at least force a draw and will fancy their chances in the return leg in Italy next week, which will add to the pressure on Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger.
Indeed Udinese’s impressive performance away from home was a feature of the evening’s matches as all the visiting sides can still entertain hopes of making the lucrative group stages.
Czech side Viktoria Plzen recorded an eyecatching 3-1 win away at Danish outfit Copenhagen, who reached the last 16 last season, but will require a miracle to even make the group stage this time.
There were also valuable away score draws for Portuguese giants Benfica, who drew 2-2 with Dutch side Twente Enschede, and Austrians Sturm Graz forced a 1-1 stalemate with experienced Belarus outfit BATE Borisov.
Even Russian side Rubin Kazan will feel they still hold a chance of overturning a 3-1 defeat by France’s experienced Champions League campaigners Olympique Lyonnais, who came from 1-0 down to seal victory with France international Bafetembi Gomis impressing.
Arsenal may have won, but there was an air of gloom round the Emirates Stadium, with not only Fabregas missing, but also loads of home supporters who preferred to stay at home.
Walcott’s first-half goal at least gave the Gunners a slender advantage to protect in the second leg in Italy on Wednesday, but they will have to improve to avoid an embarrassing early exit and a place in the Europa League will be little solace.
Fabregas’ ability to retain possession and launch attacks was sorely missed and Arsenal needed a large dose of luck to hold onto their lead as Udinese carved open their shaky defense time and again.
With Wenger absent from the post-match press conference because of a touchline ban, it was left to Aaron Ramsey to discuss Arsenal’s performance.
“Cesc was a great player for the club, but now he’s gone. We dug in and gave absolutely everything tonight,” Ramsey said. “The most important thing is the clean sheet. We believe we’re capable of going over there to win.”
Udinese coach Francesco Guidolin added: “We didn’t take the chances we had, but it is still an open match and we have a chance of qualifying in the next match.”
A Jimmy Briand header 19 minutes from time completed a rousing fightback from Lyon as the French club bid to reach the group stages for the 12th successive season.
Vladimir Dyadyun had stunned the hosts as he handed Rubin a third-minute lead, but Gomis led the Lyon response, by scoring one and creating another to give Remi Garde’s side the lead, before Briand sealed the win in a refreshingly open contest.
Garde, who replaced Claude Puel when he was sacked after last season, was pleased to have won, but concerned about what may happen in Russia.
“In the return leg, we must not allow ourselves to fall behind again, but it is difficult to know how that is going to pan out,” he said.
His Rubin counterpart, Kurban Berdyev, firmly believes that his side can overcome the deficit and win in Kazan.
“We lost 3-1 and that means we have to make up a two goal difference,” he said. “Nothing is lost ahead of the second match. We are capable of overcoming the difference.”