Arsenal shows unexpected character

Theo Walcott pushes the Gunners to the round of 32 (Photo: Jamie McDonald/Getty Images).

Arsenal survived a critical test tonight in Italy, winning a spot in the Champions League group stage with a second half fight-back to topple Udinese 2-1 (3-1 on aggregate).

It was a major victory for the embattled manager Arsene Wenger, who has seen two major stars leave his team this month and had other players turn down the club’s offers. It may prove only to be a stay of execution, but the win likely saved Wenger’s job for the moment, and gave the Gunners some $40m in Champions league lucre.

Elsewhere, Benfica, Lyon, Plzen and BATE Borisov all rolled through in a fairly routine European evening. The draw for the Champions League group stages takes place tomorrow live on FOX Soccer (11:30 a.m. ET) and will be tracked in real time on the @FoxSoccer account on Twitter.

On the run-up to the game in Udine, Wenger had the questionable pleasure of opening up the paper and seeing former Gunner great Tony Adams slagging him off. Adams told the Guardian that the manager “wasn’t a great motivator,” a charge that must have hurt considering that it is character that Arsenal have been accused of lacking under a man referred to as the Professor.

And guess what?

Adams might want to be rethinking his words after a masterful second half performance by Arsenal saved the Gunners’ season and, yes, showed character. That it came after a half-time dressing room chat might just be coincidental, but after the month Wenger is having, it would be graceless not to give him any credit for getting this young and sub-par team to perform in a major test.

After a miserable first half in Udine that saw the Italians pepper the woodwork, then had Antonio Di Natale finally putting in a critical goal, Wenger could have been forgiven for tossing a water bottle or two. It certainly seemed as if the meltdown was on. Instead, cameras captured him as calm and restrained. Confident, even.

After all, despite his team’s obvious failings on defense (the goal came when Gervinho declined to track back and Johan Djourou inexplicably allowed the Italian marksman acres of space), Arsenal hadn’t looked like a team on the edge of collapse.

His team mirrored his confidence, coming out with a clinical second half performance that saw Theo Walcott and Robin van Persie score and keeper Wojciech Szczesny make a game-changing penalty save on Di Natale to get the win. Szczesny’s stop — the moment when momentum finally swung Arsenal’s way — will make highlight reels; a near-impossible palming away of a well-taken kick that by rights should have put Udinese back in it.

Arsenal have serious problems, mind you. They don’t have a defense. They are missing many of their key players and have difficulty scoring goals. They need reinforcements and they need them now. But tonight, for at least one night before they must face Manchester United on the weekend, they can be proud. They were young, but they were good enough.

Lyon advances, again

Earlier in the day, Lyon did just enough to hold off Rubin Kazan in Russia, with a 1-1 draw to win 4-2 on aggregate. A 77th minute goal from Natcho made Lyon sweat for a few minutes in Russia, but in the end the perennial French power was too much for the home side.

Lyon played it smart in Kazan, not sitting on their 3-1 first leg lead but attacking often enough to prevent Rubin from throwing extra men forward to chase the result. Natcho’s goal came from a 12-yard volley after Obafemi Martins headed down to create the chance. Martins only appeared as a late substitute and though he gave Rubin some bite his entry was not enough to change the expected outcome.

The French sealed their place when Bakary Kone rose above everyone in the 87th minute to nod in a Kim Kallstrom corner kick for his first goal with the club, earning Lyon a deserved draw.

Polished and professional over the two legs, Lyon will again be a threat in the group stage. Although they did not play at full speed tonight, they created enough chances to have scored two or three. Thework of Michel Bastos as an overlapping attacker will have been noticed by future opponents.

Benfica punches ticket

It felt like the old days at the Estadio da Luz where a rebuilt Benfica team stormed into the group stage with a 3-1 (5-3 agg.) demolition of FC Twente that was even more decisive than the final score. It’s been a while since the Lisbon Reds have been able to take center stage in Europe, but the array of talent that Jorge Jesus has at his disposal this season may be good enough to make Benfica a legitimate bet for a place in next spring’s knockout stage.

Once again it was Nolito, the former Barcelona youth, who called the tune for Benfica, constantly dangerous on his penetrating runs and supported so well by the likes of Pablo Aimar, Oscar Cardozo and the wide men, Axel Witsel and Maxi Pereira. There was so much quality to the Benfica attack that the visitors could not match the intensity that the Encarnados forwards displayed.

That didn’t happen, although it took a half for Benfica to turn its dominance into a lead. It was Witsel who opened the account with an acrobatic overhead kick a minute after the restart. He scored again thanks to a wonderful through ball from Cardozo and a Luisao header off a corner in between the Witsel strikes completed the account.

Bryan Ruiz scored a consolation goal for the Dutch, who didn’t really mount an attack until Benfica had made the tie completely safe.

BATE Borisov survives

In Austria, a ponderous Sturm Graz side never looked like scoring or winning against BATE Borisov in a dull one that ended 2-0 (3-1 on agg) for the Belarusians. That says something about BATE’s defensive resolve and their ability to dictate the pace of play, but it is not an argument that the Belarusians will be any kind of contender when the real action begins next month.

Credit BATE with coming to attack. They had not finished effectively at home, and tonight, they were just enough better. Aleksandr Volodko’s 28-yard strike put them on top in the 35th minute, and Marko Simic clinched the tie with a powerful header in the 70th.

The rest of the time Sturm went laboriously at its task but without any flair. BATE played its part by trying to stretch the Austrian defense, but again with no clear sign that they possess the ability to trouble any of Europe’s giants.

Plzen cruises past FC Copenhagen

Finally, Plzen sealed their place in the group stages with an effective and predictable 2-1 win (5-2 on agg.) win over a dour Copenhagen side. Goals from Marek Bakos and Michal Duris closed out the match after an early strike from Christian Bolanos gave the Danes a flash of hope, but Plzen’s first leg win was too much for Copenhagen to overcome. The Czech champs have never before appeared in the group stages and will hope to do more than just make up numbers.