Arsenal reaches Champions League group stage

Arsenal swept aside its poor domestic start and beat Udinese 2-1

Wednesday to qualify for the Champions League group phase for the

14th consecutive season.

After Antonio Di Natale put Udinese in front in the 39th minute

at the Friuli stadium, Arsenal replied with goals from new captain

Robin van Persie in the 55th and England forward Theo Walcott in

the 69th.

Goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny saved a penalty shot from Di Natale

in the 59th and Arsenal advanced on 3-1 aggregate, with Walcott

having scored early in a 1-0 win in the opening leg last week.

”We were eliminated by a stronger squad, but we played tough

and both matches were balanced,” Udinese coach Francesco Guidolin

said. ”We saved our pride and I’m satisfied by our

performance.”

Two-time European Cup winner Benfica and Lyon also advanced,

joining BATE Borisov of Belarus and Czech side Viktoria Plzen.

After a 2-2 first leg, Benfica beat Dutch side Twente 3-1 in

Lisbon with two goals from Alex Witsel and one from captain

Luisao.

Lyon reached the group stage for the 12th straight year after

holding Russian hosts Rubin Kazan to a 1-1 draw.

Lyon safely protected its 3-1 lead from the first leg, although

Bibras Natkho gave the home team some hope when he put Rubin ahead

in the 77th minute. However, Bakari Kone equalized for Lyon 10

minutes later to see the French side through.

In Thursday’s draw for the lucrative group stage, the freshly

qualified squads will be pooled with the likes of defending

champion Barcelona, Real Madrid, Manchester United, Chelsea and

Europe’s other elite clubs. The losers in the playoff round

qualified for the Europa League instead.

While Arsenal is often mentioned alongside Europe’s best squads,

it arrived in Italy in crisis mode, having managed just one point

from two English Premier League matches – including its first home

loss to Liverpool in 11 years – and having lost two key players in

the transfer market.

With former captain Cesc Fabregas already having gone back to

Barcelona, Arsenal announced Tuesday it had reached a deal to send

France midfielder Samir Nasri to Manchester City.

Making matters more complicated was a two-match ban in Europe

for Arsene Wenger, although UEFA temporarily lifted the suspension

to consider an appeal and allowed the Arsenal manager to patrol the

touchline against Udinese.

Wenger’s presence didn’t seem to matter much at the start,

though, with Di Natale galvanizing his club with something

spectacular on seemingly every possession in the first half.

Di Natale had already hit the post with a sliding shot inside

the box in the 23rd when he made a quick glance to see where

Szczesny was positioned, then didn’t even leave the ground as he

redirected a pass from Giampiero Pinzi with a header from near the

penalty spot that went in off the far post.

Di Natale led Serie A in scoring the past two seasons with a

total of 57 goals, and he also hit the woodwork in the opening leg,

banging a free kick off the crossbar.

Udinese goalkeeper Samir Handanovic was also sharp in the first

half, stopping consecutive close-range chances from Walcott and Van

Persie following an incursion by newly signed Arsenal winger

Gervinho in the 32nd.

Wenger replaced Emmanuel Frimpong with Tomas Rosicky in midfield

to begin the second half but it was Gervinho who set up Van

Persie’s goal, sliding a cross in for the Dutch international to

strike in from the top of the goalbox.

After a goal judge signaled for an Arsenal handball, Szczesny

guessed correctly and dove to his right to deflect Di Natale’s

penalty up over the bar and Walcott then sped past Udinese’s

defense and beat Handanovic to seal the win.

Udinese’s loss represented the second consecutive season Italy’s

fourth club failed to qualify, with Sampdoria losing a playoff to

Werder Bremen last year. It also dropped seven-time European

champion AC Milan into the pot of No. 2 seeded teams for the draw,

since Arsenal is ranked higher.

Serie A has already dropped behind Germany’s Bundesliga into

fourth place in the UEFA rankings that determine how many clubs

from each country qualify for Europe each season.