Champions League – Arsenal hit back to seal spot in group stage

The Premier League side claimed a 3-1 victory on aggregate courtesy of second-half goals from Robin van Persie and Theo Walcott, but it was far from an easy ride in a hot and humid Udine.

Arsenal had carried a 1-0 lead to the Italian city from the first leg at the Emirates Stadium, but looked to be in deep trouble when livewire striker Antonio Di Natale brilliantly headed home Giampiero Pinzi’s cross on 39 minutes.

That saw Udinese deservedly level the tie at 1-1 on aggregate after the Serie A side had hit a post twice in a frantic first period at a bouncing Stadio Friuli.

Arsene Wenger’s men were rocking at the interval, but resumed looking a whole lot more composed as Van Persie expertly tucked away the dangerous Gervinho’s cutback on 55 minutes to level on the night at 1-1.

Visiting goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny made a stunning one-handed stop from Di Natale’s penalty on 59 minutes after Thomas Vermaelen was mysteriously booked for handling in the area as Udinese’s hopes began to visibly fade.

Walcott put the home side out of their misery when he scampered clear to sidefoot the ball beyond the impressive home keeper Samir Handanovic.

Arsenal probably merited their place in Thursday’s draw in Monaco after a courageous effort in the second period with an inexperienced side at such a demanding level of the sport. They join Manchester United, Chelsea and Manchester City as England’s representatives in the club game’s most prestigious competition.

After losing midfielders Cesc Fabregas to Barcelona last week and Samir Nasri to Manchester City on the day of this match, there was some strain on Wenger to deliver a place in the group stages, especially after his side were booed off the park in losing 2-0 at home to Liverpool in the Premier League on Saturday.

The match opened at a breathless pace with Handanovic forced to show his considerable handling skills to clasp a couple of cunning efforts from the evasive Gervinho before Di Natale was deemed to be offside after rattling the back of the net with a gorgeous volley.

Udinese were so unlucky on 16 minutes when Pablo Armero headed against a post from Di Natale’s cross before Di Natale himself could not believe his luck as he struck a post from Mauricio Isla’s cross.

Handanovic was then forced to come up with the goods at the other end in saving at point-blank range from Walcott and Van Persie after some more inspired play by Gervinho with the game bubbling up into some sort of classic contest.

With play raging from end to end on an evening of high humidity, Di Natale forced Szczesny to claw out a shot from an acute angle, but the tireless home skipper was not to be denied when he looped a header over Szczesny that nestled in the net via a post to thrill the Udinese support.

Armero thumped over the bar from the edge of the area on 42 minutes as his side continued to excel, but their hopes were dashed when Arsenal – with Emmanuel Frimpong departing at half-time for Tomas Rosicky – equalised courtesy of some more menacing play by Gervinho and the expected fine finish by captain Van Persie.

Szczesny’s stunning penalty save represented Udinese’s last chance of rescuing the tie, but their failure to score in London came back to haunt them as much when Walcott exposed the space in a tiring defence to kill the match off with 20 minutes or so left.

Walcott will miss the opening match of the group stages after collecting a late booking amid a rash of yellow cards, but such matters will mean little to Wenger or his team. They will just be happy to be there as Udinese drop into the Europa League.

Arsenal fans will no doubt hope for reinforcements by the time they begin their 14th straight season in the tournament next month.

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