Fri, Aug 26, 2011 - Page 20 News List

Gunners fire into group-stage draw

RELIEF:Arsenal fell behind when Antonio di Natale scored, but goals by Robin van Persie and Theo Walcott put the Gunners out of sight of their rivals

AFP, PARIS

Benfica’s Argentine midfielder Pablo Aimar, right, vies with Twente’s Brazilian defender Douglas during their Champions League playoff at the Estadio da Luz in Lisbon, Portugal, on Wednesday.

PHOTO: AFP

Under-pressure Arsenal made the Champions League group stage for the 14th consecutive season on Wednesday with a battling win over Udinese in Italy, while former champions Benfica also reached the group stage.

Defending a slim 1-0 lead from the first leg of their playoff, Arsenal, having endured a poor start to the English Premier League season that has yielded just one point and no goals, fell behind in the 39th minute.

Antonio di Natale leveled the tie on aggregate with a header inside the right-hand post.

However, Gunners captain Robin van Persie equalized 10 minutes into the second half, before Udinese squandered a golden opportunity to go ahead when referee Olegario Benquerenca awarded a penalty against Thomas Vermaelen for handball.

Arsenal goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny dived to his right to keep out di Natale’s spot-kick and the Londoners took full advantage when Theo Walcott put Arsenal out of sight in the 69th minute.

It was enough to secure victory on a day when Samir Nasri completed his move away from Arsenal to Manchester City and just nine days after Cesc Fabregas returned to Barcelona.

“We showed that, under pressure, we can respond with football, and remain calm and composed on the ball and play like we know how to play,” Gunners coach Arsene Wenger told ITV.

Belgian international Axel Witsel scored twice as former champions Benfica defeated Dutch league leaders Twente 3-1 at the Stadium of Light for a 5-3 aggregate success following a 2-2 draw in the Netherlands last week.

Witsel, signed from Standard Liege in the summer, found the target in the 46th and 66th minutes, with Luisao also on the score sheet on the hour mark.

Olympique Lyonnais will play in the group stage for the 12th successive season after a tense 1-1 draw at Rubin Kazan in Russia put them through 4-2 on aggregate.

Bebras Natcho scored for Rubin with 13 minutes remaining and the Russian side sensed a famous night as another goal would have put them through on the away-goals rule.

However, new signing Bakary Kone headed home with three minutes left to make sure of Lyon’s place in the draw.

“It’s a relief and a satisfaction to be qualified for the Champions League,” Lyon coach Remi Garde said. “I started to worry when we missed a couple of chances. When you squander good opportunities, it gives the opposition confidence.”

Also going through on Wednesday were Czech side Viktoria Plzen, who saw off Copenhagen 2-1 for a 5-2 aggregate win and a first appearance in the lucrative group stage.

BATE Borisov of Belarus enjoyed a 2-0 win at Sturm Graz in Austria, which gave them a 3-1 win.

On Tuesday, four-time European champions Bayern Munich defeated Zurich 1-0 in Switzerland for a 3-0 aggregate victory, Villarreal trounced Danish league runners-up Odense 3-0 to win 3-1 on aggregate. They were joined in the draw by Dinamo Zagreb, Belgian side Genk and APOEL Nicosia of Cyprus.

The group-stage draw features the 10 playoff winners and the 22 automatic entrants.

One of those teams will be -Trabzonspor, who on Wednesday took the place of Turkish league winners Fenerbahce after their rivals were banned because of an ongoing match-fixing probe that has ensnared the Istanbul club.

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