Arsenal rode their luck but Alexis Sánchez’s late first-half goal means for the 17th consecutive season they will be in the draw for the Champions League group phase. Arsene Wenger’s men have become veterans in the art of negotiating potentially perilous qualifiers in recent years, but were pushed closer to the precipice than ever before by Beşiktaş. In the closing minutes the narrowness of their advantage was compounded by having to battle it out a man down after Mathieu Debuchy saw a second yellow card. It wasn’t until the much longed-for final whistle was blown that, on a day when it was confirmed that Olivier Giroud could be out for the rest of 2014, there would not be another massive early blow to an Arsenal season that began with such optimism.
After a goalless draw in Istanbul last week, Arsenal endured an increasingly nervy opening 45 minutes at the Emirates and could count themselves mighty fortunate not to have conceded at least one penalty from two strong appeals by the visitors. Beşiktaş were holding an Arsenal side that, in the absence of Olivier Giroud, lacked a true presence up front, with a degree of comfort while growing increasingly confident in possession. Sánchez’s first competitive goal for his new club right before halftime then came at the perfect moment. The Chilean’s shot creeping past the lackadaisical dive of Tolga Zengin.
There was momentary relief, but then the increasingly prevalent realization that Arsenal were just one goal away from disaster and dropping into the Europa League took hold throughout the stadium. Debuchy’s exit only exacerbated the tension. Former Chelsea striker Demba Ba went agonizingly close to a most precious away goal on more than once occasion, but, just as in Turkey, Arsenal held on despite being a man down and can once again count their place among the elite of European soccer.
When the group phase begins next month, a large proportion of fans inside the Emirates on Wednesday will surely hope that Wenger has had a rethink and dives back into the transfer market for a striker. As against Everton on Saturday, Sánchez looked ill-fitting leading the line in this particular lineup. Still, Arsenal did have early chances to capitalize on what was an encouraging start. Jack Wilshere had his best performance of the early season and stepped up in the absence of the suspended Aaron Ramsey, but really should have got on the score sheet when running clean through on goal. Instead he slid the ball the wrong side of the post. Santi Cazorla was even less accurate moments later when attempting a first-time effort into an unguarded net from 35 yards having been gifted the ball by Beşiktaş’s goalkeeper.
That early thrust to Arsenal’s play soon diminished and Beşiktaş perhaps should have been handed at least one chance to score from the spot. Debuchy had been booked for a rough aerial challenge early on and could easily have been given a second card much earlier than he eventually did when going to ground riskily on Mustafa Pektemek. Wilshere was soon equally as fortunate when sliding in from behind as Ramon Motta took aim just inside the box. It was difficult to tell whether Wilshere made contact with the man, but he certainly got nowhere near the ball. Beşiktaş coach Slaven Bilic, forced to watch on from the stands, was in no doubt that his side had been hard done by.
To Arsenal’s relief, Wilshere soon gave a better account of himself going forward. The midfielder has faced much criticism so far this season but showed his undoubted ability by controlling the ball neatly on the edge of the box before attempting a one-two with Mesut Özil. Just as he was about to collect the return pass, Sánchez pounced, took the ball off his teammate’s toes and struck a low effort that caught out Zengin. It was far from the cleanest shot the former Barcelona man has ever hit but it would prove sufficient to almost repay his £35 million transfer fee in one fell swoop.
There were early signs the second-half could be more comfortable, and Wilshere set up Sánchez for an effort that deflected wide. But that sense soon evaporated as nerves again took hold. After an awful defensive mishap, Ba turned well but fired into the side netting with Arsenal hearts in mouth. It was an effort that followed on from several missed opportunities for the striker in the first leg that have ultimately cost his side dear. The most memorable was yet to come. By the time it did Arsenal had seen Debuchy finally push the referee too far and earn a second yellow for tugging Pektemek back. Inevitably it made for a nail-biting last 15 minutes. Only when Ba, a target for Arsenal last summer, failed to make contact with a free header at the back post in the final minute, was a most anxious tie eventually decided.