1-0 Di Natale 39
1-1 van Persie 55
1-2 Walcott 69
Arsenal are through to the group stages of the Champions League for the 14th straight season after a superb turnaround against Udinese. After 45 minutes, many, including yours truly, were extremely nervous about Arsenal's Champions League future. However, the boys in red and white produced a much needed comeback, and ensured our Thursday nights are free for the near future.
Arsenal started the match quite well, playing at an incredibly high tempo, and Gervinho and Theo Walcott got behind the Udinese back four, but couldn't find the net or Robin van Persie. Udinese, however, after giving Arsenal space began to tighten up at the back, and started to play on the counter attack, as they had in the first leg. With Bacary Sagna not a left back and Carl Jenkinson inexperienced, they used long diagonals to target the wings. Jenkinson, though, was impressive all night, and despite his inexperience, was rarely beaten by Armero. Arsenal's left, though, was left somewhat exposed. Bacary Sagna is not a left back, so he was struggling somewhat to deal with the pace of Mauricio Isla, who combined with Di Natale before crossing for Armero, who hit the post, with Szczesny covering. With Gervinho not tracking back well and Song giving Jenkinson support on the right, Arsenal's left was exposed time and time again, with Di Natale hitting the post after another Isla cross. To make matters worse, Arsenal, despite their possession, were having problems breaking Udinese down. With Frimpong and Song in the midfield, they had a lack of passing quality, and with no link between the attack and midfield, it looked as though 3 separate units were playing. Finally, Arsenal's pressing and closing down was poor. The gap between the midfield, attack and defence was too large (Sacchi, the successful Milan manager from the late 80s, suggests 25 meters between defence and attack), giving lots of space to Udinese to counter in. It was this lack of pressing that cost Arsenal. Gervinho lost the ball on the left, and quickly Udinese countered. With neither Frimpong or Song closing down, Pinzi was able to chip the ball for Antonio Di Natale, who's free header left Wojciech Szczesny stranded. 1-0 to Udinese, leveling up the scores, and they looked rampant. However, Arsenal had had chances in the first half, and it took two excellent saves for Samir Handanovic to deny first Theo Walcott and then Robin van Persie after Gervinho's run and cutback.
Needing quality and creativity, Wenger brought on Tomas Rosicky for Emmanuel Frimpong at the beginning of the second half. Though he didn't score or assist, he changed Arsenal's attack. With Rosicky instead of Frimpong, Arsenal began to retain possession in the final third, and Udinese were forced to drop deeper. Usually, this is a good strategy against Arsenal, but from the left Gervinho jinked his way past Ekstrand before cutting back for van Persie, who fired home past Handanovic. 1-1, and with a crucial away goal, Udinese needed to score two more. They almost got one back immediately: From a corner, Thomas Vermaelen was judged to have handled the ball, and the referee gave Udinese a very very lucky penalty. Di Natale's penalty was hit hard towards the top corner, surely giving Udinese a second goal and leveling up the scores. However, Wojciech Szczesny made an absolutely fantastic save, pushing the ball over the bar after perhaps the best save from a penalty ever. No wonder the Arsenal fans were singing his name afterwards.
Needing a goal, Udinese pushed forward, and like in the first leg, Arsenal dropped slightly deeper. There was, however, more space for the counter attack, and with Gervinho and Theo Walcott, the smart money was on an Arsenal goal on the counter. It was Walcott who delivered after an excellent one two with Bacary Sagna and then a fine through ball took him clear of the Udinese defence before Walcott faked the keeper and then smashed home to Handanovic's right. It was a goal a certain other Arsenal number 14 would be extremely proud of, and it sealed Arsenal's progression.
Afterwords, Arsenal took the sting out of the match with trademark midfield passing, and Ramsey, Song, Arshavin and van Persie combined brilliantly for what seemed to be a third goal except for Handanovic. His keeping was superb throughout the two legs, but he will be overshadowed by a marvelous save and overall performance from Wojciech Szczesny. Carl Jenkinson was also very good, and Tomas Rosicky added a much needed passing rhythm to the Arsenal midfield.
It was a good result, but it shouldn't paper over cracks: Arsenal are still desperately lacking creativity in the midfield, and the squad has already been painfully stretched thin. With all of the transfer budget to spend, now that Champions League progression has been assured, there is no excuse to not strengthen the side.