Arsenal still have plenty of work to do if they are to secure a 17th straight season in the Champions League group phase after a testing night in Istanbul saw them finish goalless and down to 10 men after the first leg of their playoff with Beşiktaş. Arsene Wenger’s men have become regular negotiators of the potentially perilous qualifiers in recent seasons and a year ago came away from the Turkish capital with a 3-0 win over Fenerbahce. But the contest against a team who only made it into the Champions League after Fenerbahce’s exclusion for match-fixing proved a much tougher assignment.
There were clear chances squandered by both sides and, even after Aaron Ramsey was shown his second yellow card with 10 minutes remaining, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain came desperately close to getting a precious goal but saw Beşiktaş goalkeeper Tolga Zengin help the ball onto the inside of the post.
Former Chelsea striker Demba Ba threatened on several occasions, including a desperately nervy moment straight from the kickoff when Wojciech Szczesny had to help the ball against the crossbar. Arsenal struggled to find any flow to their game on the poor pitch at the Atatürk Olympic Stadium, which was chosen as the venue with Beşiktaş’ regular stadium being redeveloped. There were still chances for the visitors, but most fell to Olivier Giroud, who endured a night to forget.
Arsenal now go into the second leg at the Emirates Stadium next Wednesday knowing that a win is required and a score-draw would see them miss out on the revenue and prestige of once again joining Europe’s elite. It will be a match that they will have to negotiate without Ramsey and potentially without fellow midfielder Mikel Arteta, who was forced off in the second half through injury.
While not having to travel to Beşiktaş’ home stadium, and the Atatürk Olympic Stadium being far from full, it was still a nervy start from Arsenal. Indeed they were so nearly behind in a matter of seconds. Ba, who Arsenal were close to signing from Chelsea last summer, hit an audacious and brilliant effort right from halfway that had scrambling and relieved.
Beşiktaş’ new signing continued to be the major threat in the opening 45 minutes to a visiting side that was less than secure. With less than 10 minutes still on the clock, another man with connections to Arsenal, former youth-teamer Oguzhan Ozyakup supplied a floated cross and Arsenal’s slack marking allowed Ba to strike a volley on goal that Szczesny repelled with greater comfort than his first stop.
It was not a match of great quality, yet one that featured occasional frenetic bursts. Just seconds after Ba’s attempt, Alexis Sánchez led a break down the right and squared the ball for Giroud in the middle, but the striker was denied a clean shot on goal on the turn. Sánchez was by some distance the man looking most likely to help Arsenal find a much sought after away goal. Minutes later the Chilean again tricked his way down the flank, before this time finding Santi Cazorla, whose shot went across the face of goal.
Further goal-mouth action arrived in another hectic period right before half-time. Calum Chambers has showed maturity beyond his 19 years since arriving at Arsenal from Southampton, but he was badly caught out to allow Ba to get onto the end of long ball. The Senegalese front man cut inside Laurent Koscielny for a clear sight of goal which he should have made far more of than striking wide of the post. Ba, though, was at least looking livelier than his opposite number at the other end. Giroud was left on the bench at the weekend as he continues to strive for full fitness after the World Cup, but without Yaya Sanogo he was required from the start in Turkey. He was not up to the task. Ramsey put him through on goal with a delightful scooped pass but the France international couldn’t take it into his stride and another chance went begging.
Arsenal’s defense continued to show signs of weakness early in the second half to gift Beşiktaş another opportunity that they will sorely regret not taking. This time Olcay Sahan was played in behind Mathieu Debuchy down the left and allowed to cut inside before curling wide of Szczesny’s far post. While Arsenal again escaped, Arteta picked up an injury in the move and had to depart to be replaced by Mathieu Flamini.
Beşiktaş coach Slaven Bilic never beat Arsenal during his time as a player with West Ham and Everton and, despite the Croatian getting his side to put in an extremely committed, intense display, that record was to continue as a coach. The fitness levels of both sides at this early stage of the season meant the tempo of the match faded as the second half wore on. Still, Giroud had another chance, from which he found only the legs of a defender. And in the dying minutes, substitute Oxlade-Chamberlain appeared to have won it after being gifted possession, only to be spectacularly denied.
By that point Ramsey had been given a second caution after foolishly tugging back Ozyakup. Arsenal will certainly miss the Welshman’s thrust in a week’s time, but Wenger will hope that his absence is compensated for by the return to the fold of his German World Cup winners Mesut Özil, Lukas Podolski and Per Mertesacker.