Arsenal began life without Cesc Fabregas with a 1-0 win over Udinese in the opening game of their Champions League soccer playoff.
Theo Walcott scored after four minutes last night at the Emirates Stadium in London to give Arsenal the victory a day after Fabregas completed his long-discussed move to hometown club Barcelona.
“Cesc was a great player for the club but now he’s gone,” midfielder Aaron Ramsey, who set up Walcott’s goal, said in a televised interview. “We dug in and gave absolutely everything. The most important thing is the clean sheet.”
Lyon and Viktoria Plzen both won 3-1 last night, while BATE Borisov and FC Twente rallied for home draws in the two-game playoff openers in European soccer’s elite club competition. The return matches will be played Aug. 24 with the series winners advancing to the 32-team group stage.
Arsenal was outshot 15-11 and needed several saves from goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny to keep its lead going to Italy, where it will attempt to reach the group stage for a 14th straight season.
The Gunners, who came through a qualifying round to reach the group stage in four of the last five seasons, are on a three-game losing streak on the road in the competition.
“We believe we’re capable of going over there to win,” Ramsey said.
In addition to Fabregas, Arsenal was without striker Robin van Persie and midfielder Samir Nasri, who were serving suspensions picked up in last season’s loss at Barcelona, and injured midfielder Jack Wilshere. The Gunners then lost defenders Kieran Gibbs and Johan Djourou to injury in the game.
Manager Arsene Wenger also sat out a suspension from the Barcelona game. He communicated with the bench by telephone in the first half before stopping after being warned by tournament organizer UEFA. He didn’t speak to the media after the game.
Arsenal took the early lead as Ramsey ran onto a ball at the edge of the Udinese area and sent a pass into the middle which Walcott directed past goalkeeper Samir Handanovic.
Udinese’s Antonio Di Natale, the leading scorer in Serie A the past two seasons, hit the crossbar with a looping free kick in the 13th minute. Szczesny then stopped Pablo Armero, who broke in alone after splitting two defenders near midfield. Di Natale’s shot on the rebound was blocked by Alex Song.
Laurent Koscielny lost possession early in the second half and Di Natale took advantage to shoot from inside the area, though his effort was blocked by the sliding Djourou.
Walcott shot weakly after getting behind the defense with 20 minutes left. Szczesny then dived to stop another Di Natale shot, while Handanovic saved from Walcott. Armero had one final chance in stoppage time, though shot wide.
“We didn’t take advantage of the chances we had,” Udinese coach Francesco Guidolin said in a press conference. “But it is still open and we have a chance of qualifying in the next match.”
Strikes from Bafetimbi Gomis and Jimmy Briand, plus an own goal, lifted Lyon to the home win over Rubin Kazan in France. Czech champion Plzen also used an own goal and scores from Vaclav Pilar and Martin Fillo to win in Copenhagen.
Bryan Ruiz’s goal in the 80th minute earned FC Twente the home draw with Benfica. Luuk de Jong gave the Dutch club the lead in the sixth minute before Oscar Cardozo and Nolito answered before halftime for Benfica.
Marko Simic scored in the 59th minute to give BATE Borisov the home draw with Sturm Graz, which got a first-half goal from Manuel Weber.
The Champions League playoffs continue tonight with five more games, including FC Zurich visiting four-time champion Bayern Munich.