Arsenal travel to northern Italy tomorrow to face Udinese in the second leg of their Champions League qualifier, needing only a draw to go through to the group stages after a 1-0 first-leg victory at the Emirates.
To say this is one of the more important fixtures in Arsenal's recent history is not out of bounds. Although the club can survive missing out on Champions League group stage money in a purely economic sense (that is, it's doubtful the loss of funds would force the club into bankruptcy or anything like that), it certainly would help to bolster the transfer budget, if we should at any point decide to use some of it. The more important effect is an intangible one - simply, the fact that if Arsenal should fail to advance, judging by the fans' reactions to recent events, it's highly likely that the portion of the Internet devoted to Arsenal would explode. And we can't have that. See Aidan's piece from yesterday for a bit more detail, but suffice it to say that especially after selling Samir Nasri this morning, Arsenal really, really need to qualify for the Champions League proper.
The squad list is a bit more full than it was for the Liverpool match (or, for that matter, than it will be against Manchester United on the weekend). Gervinho, Alex Song, and Emmanuel Frimpong all remain under suspension in the Premier League due to red card accumulation; however, all are available in the Champions League, as the suspensions only apply in domestic competition. I would wager that at least two of those three will start. According to manager Arsène Wenger, Tomas Rosicky should be fit for the match, and according to John Cross (yeah, I know), both Johan Djourou and Armand Traore were in training today. Considering the gravity of the match and the thin squad Arsenal have had, this is all good news for the Gunners. Even better news, perhaps, is that the manager says Sebastien Squillaci is unavailable with a calf problem (sorry, I had to).
Lingering injuries remain a problem for some other prospective starters. There is no official word from the team on Laurent Koscielny, who had to leave the match against Liverpool after some fifteen minutes due to a back injury (which, by the way, I'm blaming on Andy Carroll until someone gives me a good reason not to). Wenger told Arsenal Player after the game that the last injury he had like this took about two weeks to heal, according to a transcript. He's not on the dot-com's injury table, though, so I really don't know what's going on with him. I expect him to be out. Kieran Gibbs is also doubtful, after Arsène Wenger said on Thursday he'd be out 10-12 days. Considering his history, a sudden bout of miracle healing seems extremely doubtful.
The worst news certainly is about Jack Wilshere. There had been rumors all week that he may be fit for the Udinese match, and reports that he'd been in full training for most of last week. But the manager said this morning that he's had a setback, and will not be available. This is a big blow honestly, as all signs were pointing to a quick recovery for a player who, at this point, is the heart and soul of this Arsenal side, at the very least where its midfield is concerned. And aside from all that, due to UEFA's decision yesterday, Wenger will remain suspended for this match and must go up in the stands (unless, of course, his appeal against suspension is successful). So Arsenal will likely be short a manager as well, though that just means Pat Rice will be in charge (and he's never lost a game as Arsenal manager).
So, who plays? It really depends on how fit certain players are, how much confidence the manager has in them, and the style he's looking to employ. Even though Traore trained today, I would presume we'll see Bacary Sagna on the left and Carl Jenkinson on the right as in the Liverpool match - it actually worked pretty well, and I could see Wenger sticking with it for the moment. If Djourou is fit he should start, as the alternatives aren't very appealing; if not, expect Ignasi Miquel to make his debut in Europe after his relatively impressive performance against Liverpool. If Wenger thinks he can cope, Miquel may start regardless to protect Djourou from a setback.
The strike force should be Robin van Persie, returning from UEFA suspension for reasons still touchy in the Wachtel household, with Gervinho and Theo Walcott on the flanks. The midfield could go a few different ways, though. The most likely trio is Aaron Ramsey, Song, and Rosicky. If I were manager, though, I would strongly consider a slightly unorthodox plan which Yankee Gunner floated on Twitter a few days ago - starting both Song and Frimpong. Neither will play at Old Trafford so tiredness won't be an issue. Defense will be more important than offense in a tie where Arsenal already lead. And both Song and Frimpong offer enough offensive ability, I think, to be able to keep the match from turning into a Mourinho-style shutdown. I really like this idea; however, I find it fairly unlikely.
Expected lineup: Wojciech Szczesny; Sagna, Thomas Vermaelen, Djourou, Jenkinson; Song, Rosicky, Ramsey; Gervinho, van Persie, Walcott
Prediction: Udinese nick a goal, but a van Persie strike ensures the draw and the Arsenal go through. Wenger spends the whole match shooting spitballs at UEFA personnel from the box seats. Samir Nasri gets crushed under a toppled pile of pound notes, and is out for the rest of the season.