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Friday, Aug. 26, 2011
Rally moves Arsenal into CL group stage
ROME — Arsenal swept aside its poor domestic start and rallied to beat Udinese 2-1 on Wednesday night and qualify for the Champions League group phase for the 14th consecutive season.
After Antonio Di Natale had put Udinese in front in the 39th minute at Friuli Stadium, Arsenal replied with goals from new captain Robin van Persie in the 55th and England forward Theo Walcott in the 69th.
Arsenal 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.
"It showed that under pressure this team can respond with football, remain calm and composed and try to play like we can," said Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger. "We had a great belief in the way we want to play."
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.
"There are many questions around our club, if we had gone out tonight it would have been much worse," Wenger said. "It was important not financially, like many people have said, but more for the fact we want to play at the top level."
Making matters more complicated was a two-match ban in Europe for 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.