For the fifth time in the last six seasons, Arsenal FC booked their place in the UEFA Champions League group stage via the play-offs, the Gunners coming from behind to beat Udinese Calcio at the Stadio Friuli.
Antonio Di Natale's 39th-minute header cancelled out the Zebrette's 1-0 first-leg deficit, but goals after the break from Robin van Persie and Theo Walcott − the latter ten minutes after Wojciech Szczęsny brilliantly saved a Di Natale penalty − ensured Arsène Wenger's side of a 14th successive campaign in Europe's premier club competition.
Both sides started at a high tempo, with Gervinho and Emmanuel Agyemang-Badu quickly testing the opposing goalkeepers with shots from outside the penalty box. Midway through the first half, Agyemang-Badu found Mauricio Isla on the right of the area. The Chile winger then fed Di Natale, who shot against a post. It was yet more frustration for last season's Serie A top scorer, who hit the woodwork twice in the first leg.
Six minutes later it was Arsenal who had a glorious opportunity to take the lead. Gervinho broke down the left, dribbling past two Udinese defenders in the process, before pulling back to the unmarked Walcott, who was denied by the outrushing Samir Handanovič. The Slovenia goalkeeper then sprang to his feet to thwart Van Persie from the rebound.
The stifling heat was having little effect on the pace of proceedings, with Di Natale next to threaten when he forced Szczęsny into a difficult save from an acute angle. The veteran forward, however, did not have to wait too much longer to give Udinese the lead. From Giampiero Pinzi's perfect cross, the 33-year-old looped a header over Szczesny and in off the far post.
Arsenal hit back in the 55th minute when Van Persie beat Handanovič with a simple finish following enterprising approach play by Gervinho down the left. Udinese, however, had an immediate opportunity to retake the lead on the night when Thomas Vermaelen's handled in the box but Szczesny leapt to his right to palm Di Natale's spot-kick over the crossbar.
Things went from bad to worse for Udinese 21 minutes from time when Walcott played a nice one-two on the halfway line with Bacary Sagna, surged towards goal and beat Handanovič at his near post. Udinese's consolation is a berth in the UEFA Europa League group stage.
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