Second half goals from Robin van Persie and Theo Walcott coupled with a fantastic penalty save by Wojciech Szczesny saw Arsenal secure a hard-fought 2-1 win against Udinese and an overall 3-1 aggregate victory which sealed progress to the Champions League group stage for the 14th successive season.
It was a fantastic performance given the well documented circumstances and one which will be welcomed warmly by Arsenal supporters so browbeaten by events both on and off the pitch in recent weeks.
Arsenal kicked-off the match fielding five players under the age of 21 and by handing full European debuts to Emmanuel Frimpong and Carl Jenkinson; both were to be kept busy during a frantic first half which saw the tone set by dangerous balls played across both penalty areas inside the opening two minutes.
Going forward Arsene Wenger’s men were a real threat, unfortunately so too were Udinese. The Gunners kept the ball well going forward, Walcott attempting an early drive which caused Handanovic into action and Gervinho continuously finding space behind the opposition full-backs.
It wasn’t just Arsenal who were making full use of the width of the pitch. In the 16th minute Isla burst down the right hand side and crossed for the wily Di Natale who deftly chipped the ball for Armeno to head towards goal. On this occasion the ball stayed out of the net, but it was a warning of things to come.
Di Natale was by far the stand out player of the first half. Causing Vermaelen and Djourou all manner of problems, the Italian international hit the post in the 22nd minute after a run across the six yard box before forcing Szczesny into a smart save ten minutes later after finding room at the back post.
Soon after a great dribble by Gervinho baffled the Udine defence and laid a terrific chance on a plate for Walcott. Alas, as in the final seconds of the first leg, the England international was unable to find a way past goalkeeper Handanovic. It was a chance which the 21-year-old should have buried.
It came as little surprise that 33-year-old Di Natale was the man to eventually break the deadlock. A cute ball by Pinzi into the box was met by the striker on the penalty spot and he cleverly cushioned a header off the post into the back of the net. At the break Udinese looked good for their 1-0 lead.
Arsenal began the second half with Tomas Rosicky replacing Emmanuel Frimpong and Alex Song returning to his usual position in front of the back four. The exchange subsequently turned very cagey with neither side creating anything of note in the final third.
It was up to Gervinho to create something. In the 54th minute the Ivorian’s mesmeric feet saw him ghost in on the left side, skip past the defender and pull a beautiful ball back to Van Persie. The Dutchman couldn’t missed and despatched the ball into the back of the net. It was a classic Arsenal goal.
Of course, as always with the Gunners nothing is simple. Just four minutes later the referee pointed to the spot after spotting a very innocuous ‘handball’ by Thomas Vermaelen. A nervous looking Di Natale stepped up to take the resulting penalty but despite crashing the ball at goal, Wojciech Szczesny miraculously tipped the ball over the bar when it was heading for the top left hand corner. It was an unbelievable save and brought happy memories of David Seaman’s Sampdoria heroics flooding back.
The following ten minutes passed in a daze with both sides trying to find their feet after some scrappy jabbing. Thankfully for Arsene Wenger it was Theo Walcott who stepped up to land the knockout blow.
A one-two with Bacary Sagna on the halfway line saw the youngster race free of the Udinese defence. With time on his side he calmly sized up Handanovic and slipped the ball inside the near post. It was a cracking and vital goal, Thierry Henryesque in execution and one which settled the nerves by leaving the Italians needing three goals to qualify.
For their part Udinese continued to probe but in the baking heat, and lacking full match fitness, they struggled to maintain a high tempo. Arsenal knocked the ball around nicely in the final 15 minutes and closed out the game with a level of professionalism which in the final months of last season seemed to have deserted them.
At half-time my brother text me stating, “I give us fuck all chance of going through at this point.”
At full-time he followed it up with an assertive, “Never in doubt.”
I dare say we all felt the same way.
13 more games and we’ll be Champions of Europe.