What an eventful Wednesday for the Arsenal. Nasri finally left for Manchester City and then the team had a tough game against Udinese in the evening. And the young Gunners passed with flying colours.
In an intimidating atmosphere with the pressure on, Arsenal got the job done with a 2-1 win against the Italian side, winning 3-1 on aggregate to progress to the Champions League group stage (for the 14th year running). After falling behind to an Antonio Di Natale header just before half time, Arsenal rallied in the second half with two goals, one each from captain Robin van Persie and Theo Walcott. It was an incredibly open game, perhaps not the tight and tense match many were expecting given that the stakes were so high, but it was always entertaining.
After a really positive start Arsenal dominated most of the first half, especially in terms of possession but Udinese were always dangerous and threatened to open the scoring a few times. The Italians hit the post twice, Di Natale in particular coming very close to sneaking the ball past Szczesny at the near-post but was denied by the woodwork. Udinese continued to grow in confidence and they made it count six minutes from half time. Giampiero Pinzi lofted a cross into the unmarked Di Natale who used every muscle in his body to steer his header over Szczesny and into the goal to take the lead. 1-0 on the night and 1-1 on aggregate and Arsenal were dangerously close to missing out on the Champions League for the first time in 14 years. After Udinese took the lead the Gunners couldn't wait for the half time whistle to blow as they really needed to regroup and sort themselves out.
Whatever Wenger said at the break must have worked because the team came flying out the blocks in the second half and look re-energised and focused on clawing their way back into the game. Frimpong, who I thought played well in the first half, was replaced by Rosicky for the second half and it really worked as he was really hungry for the ball and always harassing Udinese players. And it wasn't long until Arsenal got back into the game; after a shot by Rosicky was deflected out to Gervinho on the left wing, the Ivory Coast international attacked the Udinese fullback, glided past him to the byline before expertly crossing for van Persie to tap home through defenders to make it 1-1 and 2-1 on aggregate. Arsenal had finally gotten that crucial goal and now Udinese had to score twice to win the tie because of the Gunner's away goal. After van Persie's goal I thought the pressure and nerves might go away but there was barely enough time to relax before Udinese were threatening again. Pretty soon the unthinkable happened and the referee pointed for penalty to Udinese. At the time nobody knew how or why the spot-kick was awarded but replays showed the ball bounced up into Vermaelen's arm/shoulder. It was very harsh but there was nothing we could do but pray Di Natale missed. The confident Italian striker looked set to make the game interesting again and his powerful shot looked destined to hit the net. But Szczesny dove to his right, stretched his left arm high and palmed the shot over the crossbar and onto the roof of the net. It was an incredible save and was the turning point for the match. Szczesny was excellent all night and the penalty save was the icing on the cake, an outstanding piece of athleticism.
Udinese were floored after the missed spot-kick, especially Di Natale; it seemed to knock all his energy from him. The momentum quickly swung in Arsenal's favour and they killed off the game with an excellent goal with 20 minutes left in the game. After some neat work between Theo and Sagna down the left wing, Sagna released Walcott whose pace was too much for the Udinese defence and the young Englishman slotted the ball past keeper Handanovic to make it 2-1 on the night and 3-1 on aggregate. Game over and now I could finally relax. Even with 20 minutes left, Udinese needed 3 goals to win but all the energy had left them and Arsenal kept the ball well until the final whistle was blown.
It was a fantastic game and really nice to see Arsenal on the right end of the scoreline this season. Credit must go to the whole squad, it was a terrific performance from them all, but particular praise must go to Gervinho, who was menacing all night and mesmerising on the ball, and of course Szczesny for keeping us in it and being solid over both legs. They were both outstanding.
So Gooners across the country can breath a bit easier today, hold their heads up high and proudly claim that yes, we are still a big European club, despite all this nonsense of a "crisis". Later today we'll find out who our opponents will be in our group. With any luck (and we are definitely due some of that) we'll get an easier group this year. Hopefully last night's win against Udinese can inspire some confidence in the squad and give us a fighting chance against Man United at the weekend.
Thanks for reading.