In all the years that Arsenal have had to go through a play-off round to make it to the Champions League group stages, no other tie produced the tension and the stress experienced at the Emirates Stadium on Wednesday night against Besiktas. Arsenal had a man sent off in both legs, but still managed to keep two clean sheets and sneak into the group stages for a 17th consecutive season with a first Arsenal goal from the number 17, Alexis Sanchez.
Without Mikel Arteta, Kieran Gibbs, Aaron Ramsey and Olivier Giroud from a combination of injuries and suspensions, the Arsenal players had to to dig deep to get through. It would have been a lot more comfortable had Wilshere, Oxlade-Chamberlain and Sanchez not missed great chances during the match, but ultimately Arsenal got the job done. It doesn’t matter how it happened, it just matters that it happened.
The sending off of Mathieu Debuchy with 15 minutes to go was one of the strangest and most ridiculous red cards I’ve ever seen. Having not watched it back on television, I could be wrong, but from my position in the stadium, it’s not even a foul let alone a second yellow card for the Frenchman. The Portuguese referee was dreadful all evening, following up the poor showing from the official in the first leg. UEFA should be embarrassed that games under their jurisdiction, and games that mean a hell of a lot to those competing, can be subjected to such poor refereeing.
Almost the worst part about the sending off was the yellow card brandished to Calum Chambers for coming on the pitch too early when he replaced Mesut Ozil to fill in at right back. The fact the fourth official let him run on the pitch was ignored and Chambers was carded. Words fail me.
The huge sense of injustice created a raucous atmosphere inside the Emirates for the end of the game as every tackle and clearance was cheered. It wasn’t pretty, but Arsenal did well in the end to stop Besiktas registering a shot on target at Wojciech Szczesny’s goal. Everyone gave their all for the shirt, and in a strange way, there is a real sense of momentum and togetherness created by getting through that sort of tie without playing fantastically well.
The overall performance was more encouraging than the majority of Arsenal’s time on the pitch this season. Szczesny looked confident, the calming partnership of Mertesacker and Koscielny was reunited at the back, and bar the odd lapse in concentration, Mathieu Flamini had an effective game, showing signs of the form he produced when he first returned to the Emirates a year ago. While his final pass wasn’t quite right at times, Jack Wilshere didn’t hide after his recent criticism in the media with an energetic performance, and Santi Cazorla was also lively.
The big concern for Arsenal in the first half of the season will be the centre forward position with Olivier Giroud out for four months. While a good alternative does need to be found, Alexis Sanchez made a strong case for being an option in that position with an incredible shift for the team. He’s still trying to get on the same wavelength as his team mates, but he grabbed his first Arsenal goal with an instinctive finish and created problems for Besiktas all evening.
What really endured him to Arsenal fans during the game was his work rate as the lone striker. Particularly when down to ten men, Sanchez had to go the extra mile for the team, and he did it admirably. As he grows into this team, he is going to be one hell of a player.
Arsenal’s other big money signing in the squad, Mesut Ozil, was once again played on the left and is still trying to get his way to full match sharpness after a late return from the World Cup. He’s clearly much more effective in the centre of the pitch, but when Cazorla plays like he did on Wednesday night, Ozil is going to have to play well when given the chance to pull the strings in the middle to get the Spaniard moved out wide. When he is fully fit and sharp, the link up between Ozil and Sanchez will be exciting as the Chilean has the pace and desire to run off the shoulder of the last defender.
It was stressful and Arsenal missed chances, but to get through in the way the Gunners did will be great for the confidence around the team. If Arsene Wenger does have any late, great, plans in the transfer market, he now has the lure of Champions League to use to persuade players to the come to the Emirates. He also has a team which may not be fully firing yet, but has spirit, character and a desire to work hard for the club. That, almost more than anything else, was what got Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal into a 17th consecutive Champions League group stage.