A tricky draw, but Arsenal will be favourites to progress from Group F

Given the spectre of defeat that loomed over the club at half time against Udinese last night just being in today's Champions League group stage draw is enough for the fans. We'd have taken Barcelona, Milan, Ajax, and all the various Group of Death combinations just to be able to feast at UEFA's big table and gorge on the £25m money pie. As it is, the fourteen years of continual qualification for the group stages has its perks, so by finishing off the job in the second half last night Arsenal were top seeded in the draw due to the club's high UEFA coefficient ranking. We would avoid Barcelona, Real Madrid, Inter Milan, Bayern Munich and the English sides anyway. So whilst the draw is more favourable to the Gunners, tricky matches await. Marseille, Olympiacos and German champions Borussia Dortmund promise to provide Arsenal with some stern tests in the months ahead. It could be worse, anyway. Porto have to travel to St. Petersburg and Donetsk for tricky ties against Zenit and Shakhtar, respectively, but hey, at least they'll rack up some air miles. It goes without saying that Manchester United and Chelsea were given obligatory easy draws. I don't envisage any problems for City either - Bayern and Villarreal look tough on paper, but with City's squad, they'll be one of the favourites for the competition.

2011/12 Champions League group stage draw:

Group A - Bayern Munich, Villarreal, Manchester City, Napoli

Group B - Inter Milan, CSKA Moscow, Lille, Trabzonspor

Group C - Manchester United, Benfica, Basel, Otelul Galati

Group D - Real Madrid, Lyon, Ajax, Dinamo Zagreb

Group E - Chelsea, Valencia, Bayer Leverkusen, Genk

Group F - Arsenal, Marseille, Olympiakos, Borussia Dortmund

Group G - Porto, Shakhtar Donetsk, Zenit St Petersburg, APOEL Nicosia

Group H - Barcelona, AC Milan, BATE Borisov, Viktoria Plzen


Relief in Udine

Arsenal are now midway through the latest of the 'big weeks' that have so far dominated August, and entered tonight's Champions League Final Qualifying Round Second Leg away to Udinese with more than a sense of trepidation. Carrying a slender 1-0 lead from the First Leg, much work was still to be done to ensure qualification into the group stage for the 14th consecutive season.

The first half was frantic, and although Arsenal settled into a passing game early on Udinese were a continual threat on the counter attack. Udinese's diminutive captain Antonio Di Natale resumed his role from last week as a general thorn in Arsenal's side, exposing the team's defensive concerns. He had a goal (correctly) adjudged to be offside, then struck the post, and five minutes before half time scored an exquisite, looping header to put Udinese 1-0 up on the night and level the tie overall. This inevitably sent Twitter into overdrive and satiated the salivating journalists and pundits looking to continue the wish-fulfillment 'Arsenal in meltdown' narrative that has enveloped the media throughout the summer. Arsenal strugged to find their rhythm for the rest of the opening 45 minutes, and the half time whistle was a welcome relief.

The obituaries had been written. Arsenal were 45 minutes away from Champions League elimination, £25m automatically written off the balance sheet, and worst of all, joining Tottenham for Europa Thursdays on Five. Arsenal were soon to cease to be a 'big club'.

However, contrary to the received wisdom that Arsenal have no self-belief and are too inexperienced to handle the pressure of the biggest games that the doyens of the press would have us all believe, the team stormed out of the proverbial blocks at the start of the second half, clearly targeting Udinese's fullbacks as they sought to regain control of the tie. Gervinho used his pace and trickery to ghost past Medhi Benatia and get to the byline, cutting back for Robin van Persie to smash home the equaliser and put Arsenal ahead on aggregate with a crucial away goal; Udinese now required to score twice to advance.

Minutes later Thomas Vermaelen was harshly adjudged to have handled the ball inside the box, Udinese were awarded a penalty, and with it the chance to immediately get back into the tie. Di Natale stepped up, and smacked the ball to the left of the goal, only for Szczesny to push the effort over the bar with a confident one handed save, symptomatic of a young goalkeeper thriving as the new number 1 (in all but actual number). As Udinese continued to search for a way back into the tie, Arsenal broke and Theo Walcott sealed qualification by using his pace to speed past the tiring Udinese defenders and put the £25m seal on a confident second half performance from Wenger's young players. Of course the night's major injustice was the shoddy Italian broadcasting that robbed viewers of a chance to see Walcott and Sagna's pre-orchestrated 'putting' celebration by the corner flag.

So where do Arsenal go from here? Well, Monaco for a start, for the Group Stage draw at 1700 tomorrow! Boom, and indeed, boom. Now Champions League qualification is assured, Arsene Wenger must spend money to plug the gaping holes in the squad. Though it is unclear how big his transfer budget is, the coffers have swelled in the last few weeks with the departures of Cesc and Na$ri netting the club somewhere in the region of £60m, and the impending departures of Nicklas Bendtner and Manuel Almunia (please?) should loosen the wage budget. Gael Clichy has not been adequately replaced at left back and the need for some creativity in midfield should be Wenger's priority as we enter the final 7 days of the transfer window. I'm unconvinced by the cries for a top centre back, as I have been impressed by the Koscielny-Vermaelen partnership, but certainly decent 3rd/4th choice cover is needed. Scott Dann would fit the bill.

I'm not alone in my fear that Wenger won't actually spend, and he has already stated that he is focusing on promoting from within the current squad, but will spend if he finds the right players. Whoever they may be. Experience and creativity are needed to convince that the club can challenge this season. It is pleasing to hear of names like Eden Hazard, Yann M'Vila and Marvin Martin being linked to the club but such is the covert nature of Arsenal's transfer dealings, no one can be sure who we are tracking or the likelihoods of any bids. It's highly unlikely any new signings will take place before Sunday's trip to Old Trafford; I predict a typically eventful final few hours on deadline day as Arsenal look to push through deals on the cheap, which as strategies go is very high risk.

Arsenal had three huge missions going into the final ten days of the transfer window: qualify for the Champions League group stages, get a result at Old Trafford and buy some players. The first has been met. Now let's hope we get grab what under current circumstances is classified as an 'unlikely win' at Old Trafford before a final push in the transfer market.


A win and a clean sheet, but a stark over-reliance on youth

A young, inexperienced Arsenal side were far from convincing in the Champions League Qualifying First Leg against Udinese at the Emirates last night, but the general consensus is that an away goal in Italy should put the tie out of Udinese's hands. If only it were ever thus.

Theo Walcott, celebrating bagging what turned out to be a 4th minute winner.

Another clean sheet, and the Koscielny-Vermaelen partnership seems to be blossoming at this early stage. Two defensive shutouts so far, we appear built on solid foundations at the back as the rest of the side crumbles. Let's not get ahead of ourselves - two injuries to Gibbs and Djourou highlight the necessity to get some experienced cover in, both at left back and centre back. We can't risk going into the season with the threat of Squillaci getting any game time. And I'm unconvinced by Gibbs defensively; his injury problems are renowned. We've been linked all summer long to Cahill, Jagielka, Samba, and recently, Scott Dann. I just don't see Wenger splashing out £15m on a third/fourth choice CB, so I foresee a late £6m-£8m bid for Scott Dann - though this may depend on whether we can offload the shambles that is Squillaci - AW has made it very clear this summer that he has to sell before he can buy.

Ah yes, The Great 2011 Arsenal Exodus has picked up a bit of pace this week, with Fabregas, Vela, Eboue being ushered out the exit door and the likes of Samir Nasri and Nicklas Bendtner expected to follow shortly. Also, Andrei Arshavin remained on the bench last night, so he remains eligible to play for other European sides, should he be sold. My concern is that AW will point to the arrivals of the painfully inexperienced Oxlade-Chamberlain, Jenkinson, Campbell as well as the availability of Frimpong, Ramsay, and consider these players sufficient looking ahead to the rest of the season, neglecting to spend much (or any) of the estimated £60m-£70m we will have raised by the end of August. And he has already intimated he is willing to gamble on the new kids to replace the old ones. Fingers crossed Wenger has his Damascene moment and acknowledges the need to add some experience to the squad, and privately pledges to "spend some fucking money," even if he refuses to betray his poker-faced commitment to ambiguity publicly.


The Times They Are A-Changin'

So the dust has begun to settle following the inevitable departure of Cesc Fabregas, and as everyone knows by now, Robin van Persie has been appointed his successor as captain. A good decision this in many respects, RvP is the longest-serving member of the squad and the creative and goalscoring onus is undoubtedly on him to drive the club forward as we look to move on from the sagas of Cesc, and (soon) Na$ri. However there are a few caveats to consider. Aside from the injury proneness - just 231 appearances in 7 years, and occasional lapses in discipline (though his on-pitch maturity has improved a helluva lot over the last few years) it is widely believed that his contract is up in 2013. It is imperative that the club ties him down to a new deal before the season is out, or we will likely enter summer 2012 with major concerns over RvP's commitment to the cause and may end up having to sell him. "He's the son of two painters, the Emirates pitch with Arsenal's sub tika-taka stylings is his canvas - he won't have any interest in the materialism and oil money of City" - I pathetically try to kid myself.

To state the bleeding obvious, Arsenal really are at a crossroads. RvP is the final link to the last remnants of The Invincibles - the Bergkamps, Henrys, Vieiras - the young pretenders built around Cesc (and to a lesser extent Nasri, Flamini, Adebayor) and this current team that is far younger, completely undecorated with trophies but with stacks of potential (Wilshere, Ramsay, Walcott, Szczesny). He'll either remain and lead this team to trophies (surely we'll win one in the next few years. Surely?) Or he'll depart next summer and send the club plummeting into further crisis, something utterly unthinkable right now given the events of this summer - that are still unfolding on an hourly basis. Qualifying for the Group Stage of the Champions League will go some way to convincing him the club is still swimming upstream.

He's absent through suspension for tonight's First Leg tie against Udinese due to that unspeakably mental tie-killing, unjust sending off at the Nou Camp in March so Vermaelen will lead the team in a game we simply have to win to restore some semblance of positivity around the club. Turning on the players if things aren't going our way could prove to be too destructive - given that the notion of mental strength is completely absent from this team. Let's get behind them and will on a convincing win to ward off the lingering threat of despair.