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.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100

Bleacher Report

Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Fifa corruption: The 161-page dossier that exposes the organisation's dark heart

The 161-page dossier that exposes Fifa's dark heart

How did a group of corrupt officials turn football’s governing body into what was, in essence, a criminal enterprise? Chris Green and David Connett reveal all
Mediterranean migrant crisis: 'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves,' says Tripoli PM

Exclusive interview with Tripoli PM Khalifa al-Ghweil

'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves'
Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles: How the author foretold the Californian water crisis

Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles

How the author foretold the Californian water crisis
Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison as authorities crackdown on dissent in the arts

Art attack

Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison
Marc Jacobs is putting Cher in the limelight as the face of his latest campaign

Cher is the new face of Marc Jacobs

Alexander Fury explains why designers are turning to august stars to front their lines
Parents of six-year-old who beat leukaemia plan to climb Ben Nevis for cancer charity

'I'm climbing Ben Nevis for my daughter'

Karen Attwood's young daughter Yasmin beat cancer. Now her family is about to take on a new challenge - scaling Ben Nevis to help other children
10 best wedding gift ideas

It's that time of year again... 10 best wedding gift ideas

Forget that fancy toaster, we've gone off-list to find memorable gifts that will last a lifetime
Paul Scholes column: With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards

Paul Scholes column

With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards
Heysel disaster 30th anniversary: Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget fateful day in Belgium

Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget Heysel

Thirty years ago, 39 fans waiting to watch a European Cup final died as a result of a fatal cocktail of circumstances. Ian Herbert looks at how a club dealt with this tragedy
Amir Khan vs Chris Algieri: Khan’s audition for Floyd Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation, says Frank Warren

Khan’s audition for Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation

The Bolton fighter could be damned if he dazzles and damned if he doesn’t against Algieri, the man last seen being decked six times by Pacquiao, says Frank Warren
Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

Fifa corruption arrests

All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

How Stephen Mangan got his range

Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor