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.