Szczesny and Van Persie give Arsenal respite from the gloom
Udinese 1 Arsenal 2 (Arsenal win 3-1 on aggregate)
If this season for Arsenal turns out to exceed the expectations that many have for it, then Arsene Wenger may well look back in May to a tense, hot night in Italy nine months earlier and reflect that it was in Udine that his team's fortunes finally changed.
Arsenal have had a terrible 2011, only two wins in the Premier League since the end of February, two key players departed this summer and a rift developing between the club's famous manager and the fans. Last night they did not just secure their Champions League lives for another season but they showed some of the grit and resolve that gives the embattled Wenger project more than just a glimmer of hope for the future.
Arsenal still have to go to Old Trafford on Sunday weighed down by suspensions and injuries to face the champions but at least today they will be in the draw for the Champions League group stages for the 15th consecutive year.
At times that looked in doubt, especially when Antonio Di Natale's goal on an unspeakably humid night in north-east Italy, levelled the tie in the first half. That goal asked serious questions of Wenger's players - young and old - and the response they provided in the second half went a long way to allaying the fears that this is a club consumed by crisis.
They dragged themselves back into the game through Robin Van Persie's equaliser and they won the match with a magnificently taken winner by Theo Walcott, who demonstrated again the best and the worst of himself in front of goal last night. Between those two goals came arguably the game's defining moment: a brilliant penalty save by Wojciech Szczesny that took the wind out of Udinese's sails when they might just have overrun Arsenal.
Of all the problems that have beset Wenger in recent years, it is fair to say that we can cross the goalkeeping conundrum off the list for the long-term. Szczesny has looked impressive for a while but last night he was a matchwinner, stopping everything apart from Di Natale's looping header in the first half. That he did so behind a patched-up defence speaks volumes about the confidence of this young goalkeeper.
He was not the only one. After a shaky first half in which their left flank was exposed, Arsenal came good. Even though it was Thomas Vermaelen who conceded the penalty he was excellent in the heart of Arsenal's defence. Gervinho opened up Udinese for Van Persie's equaliser and by the end of the match the small knot of Arsenal fans in the corner of the stadium were singing to Wenger to acknowledge them with a wave.
What a difference a win makes. What a difference a couple of goals make. And what a relief to the club that are still there among the elite of European football.
It was only midway through the first half that Uefa announced Trabzonspor would take the place of Fenerbahce in the Champions League, closing off one possible backdoor route to the group stages if Arsenal were to fail last night. By then they had been exposed down their left side where Bacary Sagna was deputising as left-back - it showed - and at times, Arsenal were just about hanging on.
Di Natale was the star of the show in the first half. At 33, he played like a man who was not prepared to let his Champions League chance slip away. The Udinese captain hit the post in the 23rd minute, sliding in to meet Emmanuel Agyemang-Badu's cross and he got a foot to the rebound when Szczesny saved Isla's shot from the edge of the area. That was on 39 minutes when Giampiero Pinzi picked out Di Natale with a cross. He had drifted behind Johan Djourou and he placed his header over Szczesny and into the far left corner of the Arsenal goal via the post. He deserved it.
Seven minutes before the Udinese goal, Arsenal had the chance to kill the tie. The Portuguese referee played a good advantage after a foul on Vermaelen and the ball was worked down the left by Gervinho. He eventually cut it back for Walcott who had the time to pick his spot but hit it straight at Samir Handanovic. It is a time like that Wenger must despair of Walcott but, as he showed last night, he has a funny habit of burying the more difficult chances.
Handanovic also got a hand to Van Persie's follow-up shot and at half-time Wenger made a crucial chance. In the place of Emmanuel Frimpong he brought on Tomas Rosicky, which, as Wenger later said, gave up some of Arsenal's power in the middle of midfield but significantly added to their creativity.
They had shown glimpses of their attacking threat - a turn and, admittedly, weak shot from Walcott - but when Gervinho got past Medhi Benatia on the byline there were Arsenal players queuing up in the area. Gervinho picked out Van Persie and he beat Handanovic from close range.
The penalty save by Szczesny just before the hour was crucial. It was a dubious handball decision against Vermaelen but when the arguing was over and Di Natale put the ball on the spot, you had the feeling that this was now or never for Arsenal.
When he was needed more than ever, Szczesny came up trumps. He dived to his right to save a well-struck penalty and not only got a hand to it but turned the ball over the bar. The sense of deflation among the home support was obvious. Di Natale winced. And within ten minutes Arsenal were out of sight.
Funny old player, Walcott. First half he could not score from seven yards, the second he buried the ball like the 25-goal a season striker. On this occasion his pace took him clean away from Benatia and, running down the left flank, he deceived Handanovic by placing a right footed shot inside the goalkeeper's right post. It had been a monumental night for Arsenal; and a win they needed badly.
Udinese (4-4-2): Handanovic; Ekstrand, Benatia (Pasquale, 87), Danilo, Neuton; Isla (Denis, 83), Agyemang-Badu, Asamoah, Armero; Di Natale, Pinzi (Fabbrini, 63). Substitutes not used Belardi (gk), Basta, Abdi, Doubai.
Arsenal (4-3-3): Szczesny; Jenkinson, Djourou, Vermaelen, Sagna; Song, Frimpong (Rosicky, h-t), Ramsey; Gervinho (Traoré, 85), Van Persie, Walcott (Arshavin, 90). Substitutes not used Fabianski (gk), Oxlade-Chamberlain, Chamakh, Miquel
Referee O Benquerenca (Portugal).
Champions League pots
For today's group-stage draw:
Pot one Manchester United, Barcelona, Chelsea, Bayern Munich, Arsenal, Real Madrid, Porto, Internazionale.
Pot two Milan, Lyons, Shakhtar Donetsk, Valencia, Benfica, Villarreal, CSKA Moscow, Marseilles.
Pot three Zenit St Petersburg, Ajax, Bayer Leverkusen, Olympiakos, Manchester City, Lille, Basle, Bate Borisov.
Pot four Borussia Dortmund, Napoli, Dinamo Zagreb, Apoel, Trabzonspor, Genk, Plzen, FC Otelul.
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