Arsenal like to do things the hard way. It would just be a lot simpler if they could finish in the Premier League’s top three and not have to go through this occasional ritual of anxiety and brinkmanship before taking their place in the Champions League group stages.
This was an August Champions League qualifier fraught with nerves, much more agonising than last season’s 5-0 aggregate win over Fenerbahce. This time Besiktas proved a much more obdurate opponent but the ten men of Arsenal finished the job and, for the 17 year in a row they are in the Champions League group stages, a record unparalleled in English football and the cornerstone of the Arsene Wenger era.
Over 180 minutes however, it was just Alexis Sanchez’s goal that separated them from the team that finished third in the Turkish league last season. There should have been many more for Arsenal and, with or without the injured Olivier Giroud, that will be a concern for Wenger. His side failed to score the goals to kill off an opponent that fought admirably to the very end.
The Arsenal striker will be missing for the next three to four months having had surgery on Wednesday and is not expected to return to competitive action until, his manager said, “the end of December, start of January”. In the aftermath of the game the names were ticked off, from Nikola Zigic to Danny Welbeck via Monaco’s Falcao and the Arsenal manager denied an interest in any of them.
It could prove to be a painful last few days in the transfer window, one of those situations at Arsenal when no potential new goalscorer is good enough for Wenger who is adamant that he has more than enough strikers to last him to the New Year. Could Sanchez play at centre-forward, for the time being? “He could play there for the rest of his life,” was Wenger’s lyrical response.
There was another red card for Arsenal, this time for Mathieu Debuchy which meant that the last few minutes of the game belonged to Besiktas and were unbearable at times for the home support. Demba Ba, the Besiktas striker, formerly of Chelsea, leapt at the back post with two minutes remaining and failed to get more than a touch with his forehead to a cross when a decent contact might well have given his team the tie.
Yet, for all the agony, Arsenal are there in the draw for the group stages today and amid the tension there were some bright points. There was a good performance from Jack Wilshere, the architect of the Sanchez goal and no shortage of the spirit that they have lacked at critical points in past seasons.
The Besiktas manager Slaven Bilic was obliged to watch it from the stands, banned because of his red card in the first leg and consequently one of the livelier spectators the club’s august directors’ box has known. In the first half his team kept Arsenal exactly where they wanted them for all but the last minutes, which was at arms’ length and frustrated by their lack of chances.
Wenger opted for Sanchez at centre-forward in the absence of Giroud. The Chilean had to wait until almost the last kick of the half for his chance, and when it dropped his finish was magnificent. The move had been started by Wilshere whose first half had veered between the kind of suicidal sliding tackles that have partly become his trademark and the edge-of-the-area trickery that represents the best of his game.
It was the latter that unlocked Besiktas who had hitherto been stoutly refusing to open the door even a little for Arsenal. Debuchy’s driving run down the right started the attack and when the ball eventually fell to Wilshere he sidestepped his opponent and dinked a ball through the collection of players in front of him to Mesut Ozil.
No sooner had the ball left his boot that Wilshere set off in pursuit of the return which was sent back with the requisite weight and speed by Ozil. However, it was Sanchez who was better placed, advancing past Wlshere’s right shoulder, and the striker hit the ball first time, with the inside of his right foot past the goalkeeper Tolga Zengin.
A moment of relief for the Emirates who had watched anxiously as, just minutes earlier, Wilshere had pursued Mustafa Pektemek into the area and appeared to have tripped himself, falling forward towards the Turkey international who went down. Wilshere later as good as admitted there was contact and Wenger accepted his team had been lucky. The Portuguese referee, Pedro Proenca, who had an erratic game, waved away the appeal.
Wilshere had been granted the best chance of the early stages of the game, running through on eight minutes and dragging his shot wide. Without the suspended Aaron Ramsey it was incumbent on the Englishman to take the lead in the game and he certainly tried to do so. Nevertheless, he still slides into tackles with a recklessness that provokes a sharp intake of breath.
The only other opportunity of the first half fell to Santo Cazorla who had a brief sight of goal when the Besiktas goalkeeper Zengin made a mess of a clearance.
Those chances came more abundantly for Arsenal at the start of the second half. Bilic had remained in the Arsenal directors’ box throughout the break with neither a discreet earpiece nor a plate of half-time canapés in sight. His team looked vulnerable in the early stages when Cazorla dragged a shot wide after five minutes.
More penalty box ingenuity from Wilshere - after Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain had gone down the right wing – had permitted Sanchez to get off a shot on goal on 52 minutes but Zengin managed to push it wide. There was a back post header from Debuchy who, unmarked should have done better. One more goal, you felt, would seal the tie and deliver another year in the promised land of Europe’s elite but it would not come easy.
There was a warning after the hour when Arsenal conceded the ball in their own area and it ricocheted to Ba. The Besiktas striker turned sharply, too quick for Laurent Koscielny, and unleashed a shot that billowed the side-netting and briefly had the travelling supporters on their feet.
Really, the game should have been over on 74 minutes when Nacho Monreal delivered a cross from the left to the feet of Oxlade-Chamberlain and, having stolen in front of his marker, he directed his shot straight at the goalkeeper Zengin. After that it became much more anxious, starting with Debuchy’s second yellow for a clumsy arm thrust across the chest of Pektemek.
With the right-back sent off, Wenger sent on Calum Chambers for Ozil but some nonsensical departure from the protocol caused the referee Proenca to book the young Englishman as soon as he ran onto the pitch, instructing him to return to the sideling and do it all over again.
The end of the game proved a torment for the home fans but they need not have worried. Arsenal had done just enough. The question now for Wenger in the last dog days of the transfer window is: can they try to do more?
Match in numbers
17 - Arsenal have reached the group stages for the 17th consecutive year
0 - Shots on target for Besiktas in last night’s second-leg defeat
12 - Matches since Arsenal last lost – a 3-0 defeat at Everton last April