By Richard Clarke in Udine
Arsenal are through to the Group Stages of the Champions League for the 14th successive season.
They beat Udinese 3-1 on aggregate thanks to a 2-1 win at the Stadio Friuli on Wednesday evening.
It was comfortable in the end but, before that, Arsène Wenger’s side had to endure 70 tension-filled minutes in north-east Italy.
Antonio Di Natale wiped out Arsenal’s first-leg lead with a clever header six minutes from half-time.
Robin van Persie finished off excellent work from Gervinho to give the visitors the comfort of an away goal 10 minutes after the restart.
But, almost immediately, Udinese had the chance to regain the lead on the night when Thomas Vermaelen was penalised for handball in the area.
Di Natale, scorer of 57 Serie A goals in the past two seasons, stepped up. But Wojciech Szczesny flung himself to his right to palm the ball over the bar. A sensational, tie-turning save.
Theo Walcott added a breakaway goal in the 69th minute to kill the tie. It was a shame in one way. The first 160 minutes of this tie had been superb entertainment. The final 20 were pedestrian by comparison.
But then who cares? This was a pressure game for a team already under scrutiny from all quarters - and they got the job done.
As they have been ever since season 1998-99, Arsenal are a Champions League side.
Before kick-off, Wenger welcomed back Alex Song, Gervinho and Johan Djourou from Saturday’s defeat to Liverpool. Van Persie returned after missing the first leg at Emirates Stadium last week. Wenger was back on the bench too, his suspension had been… well… suspended.
Tomas Rosicky’s thigh problem had cleared up but he only made the bench. Despite his sending off at the weekend, Emmanuel Frimpong retained his place in central midfield.
Last week’s game had been wide open given its importance. The second leg took about 100 seconds to suggest it would be the same.
The opening salvo saw Mauricio Isla attack down the right but his shot drifted beyond the far post. Then, at the other end, Gervinho ghosted inside his marker and, from the tightest of angles, Samir Handanovic snatched his cross-shot.
The early flurry ended with Walcott driving at the keeper. As he had so significantly in injury time at Emirates Stadium, the Slovenian saved from the Englishman.
In the eighth minute, Di Natale hooked home a shot but the offside flag was entirely expected - and merited. Ramsey had a shot deflected wide and then Gervinho popped up on the right to test Handanovic from the tightest of angles once more.
Arsenal were going for the goal that would put the tie firmly in their hands. But at Emirates Stadium, Udinese had been quick and clever on the break. In the 16th minute, that combination nearly drew them level in the tie.
Di Natale found space on the right of the area and chipped a cross into the middle. Pablo Armero got a scrambled head to it and the ball bounced against the outside of the post before Kwadwo Asamoah was flagged offside following up.
Udinese were threatening. Midway through the half, Emmanuel Agyemang-Badu drove through midfield and sent Isla into space on the right. His near-post cross was made for a poacher like Di Natale. Fortunately for Arsenal, he swept the ball against the post from six yards out. A huge let-off.
The visitors found some composure in the minutes that followed and then renewed their search for a goal.
It really should have arrived in the 32nd minute. Gervinho tricked and teased the Udinese defence and cut the ball back for the unmarked Walcott 12 yards out. His sidefoot effort was superbly saved by Handanovic. The rebound fell to Van Persie but the recovering keeper saved once more.
Di Natale was living up to his exalted reputation and, seconds later, his near-post drive was deflected into the danger area by Szczesny but no-one was one hand to convert the trickling ball.
Both goals were living a charmed life. The game could not stay scoreless forever.
It didn’t - and it was Arsenal who blinked first.
Six minutes from half-time, Giampiero Pinzi. chipped in a lofted cross towards Di Natale just inside the area. He peeled off Djourou and steered in an expert header off the far post.
It was just what the home side required and before the break Armero fired from distance following fine work from Di Natale once more.
Wenger replaced Frimpong with Rosicky at the break - an offensive move. In the early stages, Arsenal showed greater purpose going forward - but it only brought a pot-shot before the goal arrived.
The strike owed much to the brightest aspect of the visitors’ game so far - Gervinho’s ability to beat weave past full backs and reach the byline.
He did it again in the 55th minute and, this time, Van Persie was on hand to volley home at the near post.
For the first time since Udinese had taken the lead the Stadio Friuli was hushed. It would be very loud and very quiet in turn over the course of the next five minutes.
It began when Rosicky cleared Di Natale’s corner and, as Arsenal raced out of the area, the referee pointed to the penalty spot. It seemed an incredible decision at the time but the official booked Vermaelen and indicated handball.
Di Natale, top scorer in Serie A for two straight seasons, stepped up and his contact was decent. Szczesny thurst out one of his huge bucket hands to deflect the ball over the bar.
If this was a ‘money game’, one upon which millions of pounds rested, then what was that save worth?
Just for added value Szczesny saved a follow up overhead kick from Danilo Larangeira.
Udinese were wounded and Arsenal rubbed in the salt when, in the 69th minute, Walcott raced clear on the left and thumped a low shot past Handanovic.
By this time even the excellent Di Natale was starting to falter; as he did on 77 minutes when put through by Agyemang-Badu.
Gervinho, Andrey Arshavin and Armand Traore all had chances but the closing stages were relatively lame and listless. The fight had gone from Udinese, Arsenal played keep-ball.
When the whistle went, Wenger’s men had retained their Champions League status too.
- Jenkinson Yellow Card
- Sagna Yellow Card
- Vermaelen Yellow Card
- Frimpong 45
- Gervinho 86
- Persie (C) Goal!
- Walcott 90 Goal! Yellow Card
- Rosicky 45
- Traore 86
- Arshavin 90
- Benatia 87 Yellow Card
- Pinzi 63
- Isla 83 Yellow Card
- Natale (C) Goal!
- Fabbrini 63 Yellow Card
- Pasquale 87
- Denis 83