Arsenal clear Euro hurdle to keep place among elite

UDINESE (1) vs ARSENAL (2)

RELIEVED Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger hailed his team’s courage after they survived a nerve-shredding evening in Italy to reach the promised land of the Champions League group stage.

The Gunners came into the match in disarray, following a poor start to the season, the departures of stars Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri and a litany of injuries – and matters got worse when Antonio di Natale put Udinese ahead and level in the tie.

But captain Robin van Persie restored their aggregate advantage after the break and goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny produced a heroic penalty save from Di Natale before Theo Walcott scored to bank Arsenal a £40m payday.

“Relief of course, we don’t want to go out,” replied Wenger, when asked how he felt. “And pride as well, because we had our backs to the wall and responded very well. There was only one team in the second half.

“Wojciech saved the penalty, which was very generous, but we played a great game tonight. It showed that under pressure this team can respond with football, remain calm and composed and try to play like we can. There are many questions around our club – if we had gone out tonight it would have been much worse.”

A run to the knockout stages of the Champions League, which Arsenal managed last season, is worth more than £40m to the north Londoners in prize money, TV revenue and matchday income.

Wenger arrived in sultry Udine with criticism ringing in his ears – and facing the possibility of a defeat that would deal Arsenal’s fragile status as a big club a monumental blow.

His nerves must have been fraying in the 39th minute when Di Natale steered a magnificent header past Szczesny via the woodwork.

Arsenal were staring at the abyss and looked petrified, but re-emerged after half-time a new side and equalised on the night 10 minutes later, Gervinho slaloming to the goal-line before cutting back for Van Persie to finish.

Relief turned to despair just three minutes later, however, when Thomas Vermaelen was penalised for handball and Di Natale placed the ball on the spot. His shot could not beat Szczesny, who flung himself right and tipped it over, and Walcott capitalised by exchanging passes with Bacary Sagna, darting clear and beating Samir Handanovic.