Wojciech Szczesny savours Arsenal's mental toughness against Udinese

When Udinese got the penalty that promised to turn a pulsating Champions League play-off back in their favour, Wojciech Szczesny knew immediately what he had to do.

Wojciech Szczesny savours Arsenal's mental toughness against Udinese Putting the ball on the spot was Antonio Di Natale, the Italy striker and Serie A's top scorer in each of the past two seasons but Arsenal's 21-year-old goalkeeper is no respecter of reputations.

"I just tried to get into Di Natale's head and I gave him a bit of stick," Szczesny said, with trademark deadpan delivery. "I was probably not very nice to him but it worked so I'm delighted. I will miss a few words out but I just told him he's not good enough, that I was too good for him and he's not going to score. Put in a nice way. I got in his head because he missed the penalty and it worked."

Szczesny's wonderful save in the 59th minute, with the score 1-1 at the Stadio Friuli and Arsenal 2-1 up on aggregate, was the tie's decisive moment. There was no way back for Udinese after that and Theo Walcott's goal served to smooth Arsenal's passage into the Champions League group phase for the 14th season in succession.

Nobody did more than Szczesny to get them there. The Poland international had also been outstanding in the first leg and it is doubtful that Di Natale will forget him. The 33-year-old had described the second leg as his "World Cup final" and he finished it by dragging the chance of a consolation goal horribly wide. The moment jarred with the quicksilver menace that he had shown over the two ties – even his penalty had been well struck for the corner of the net – yet it demonstrated how Szczesny had ground him down.

The trash-talking illustrates Szczesny's mental toughness, a quality that Arsenal have regularly stood accused of lacking. But he believes that the team made a statement with their second-half comeback at Udinese and they are primed to put their early season worries behind them. Despite a selection crisis in midfield – Cesc Fábregas and Samir Nasri have departed; Jack Wilshere and Abou Diaby are injured and Alex Song and Emmanuel Frimpong are suspended – they will travel to Manchester United in the Premier League on Sunday with confidence restored.

"At half-time, at 1-0 down to Udinese, there might have been a lot of people in England questioning the team," Szczesny said. "The only people who believed in the team were the team. All the players in the dressing-room were very motivated and had the belief that we would come back into the game. We showed very good mental strength and very good quality in the second-half.

"We had disappointing results in the previous couple of games but there was never a doubt in our heads that we aren't a very good side. So we will keep going, put in a good performance at Old Trafford and see how it goes from then."

The most prominent post-match theme in Udine involved the manager, Arsene Wenger, answering the doubters, although it ought to be noted that the majority of the criticism levelled at him so far this summer has been rooted in his transfer market decisions and there is only one way to put a halt to that. Wenger maintains that he will make significant signings before the end of the month.

"Of course, it's been hard, [with] Cesc leaving … Samir leaving," Robin Van Persie, the captain, said. "We've been in the papers for the wrong reasons, sometimes. There have been lots of discussions. But I think we played well under immense pressure, so that's a positive sign.

"Now, it's up to us to show that every three or four days, because that's football. It's not that we can live on this night for the rest of the month or the rest of the year. We have to do it every single time."

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by David Hytner, for The Guardian on Thursday 25th August 2011 22.59 Europe/London

guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010


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