Arsene Wenger can travel back from Turkey with some weight lifted from his shoulders after Arsenal took a surely decisive 3-0 first-leg lead in their playoff tie with Fenerbahce on Wednesday. Arsenal could barely have dreamt of such a comfortable night in Istanbul following the intense scrutiny the club has faced after a summer of disappointment in the transfer market and an opening day Premier League defeat to Aston Villa.
Yet, Arsenal started brightly at the Sukru Saracoglu and only grew in confidence from what was an abject performance by the home side. While Arsenal’s problems have taken the headlines in England, Fenerbahce came into the match on the back of relinquishing a two-goal lead to lose to newly promoted Konyaspor at the weekend, while a long-standing match-fixing case also hung over their heads. That will surely now be less of an immediate problem for UEFA.
Unable to punish their opponents in the first half, Arsenal did so ruthlessly after the break. Left-back Kieran Gibbs scored from close range early in the second half before the impressive Aaron Ramsey added a second, with the help of Fenerbahce goalkeeper Volkan Demirel, and Olivier Giroud added a third from the penalty spot after more hapless defending. The only thing preventing it being a perfect night for Wenger was a nasty cut to the face of Laurent Koscielny that forced the defender off in the first half.
Defying the pressure they were under to avoid what would have been a disastrous failure to make the Champions League group stage for the first time since 1997, Arsenal began brightly in a vociferous atmosphere in Istanbul. That was more than could be said for their opponents. Fenerbahce were dreadfully poor in possession, with Bekir Irtegun particularly at fault. It was no surprise to see the right-back taken off at the interval.
Arsenal were the side with better control, but lacked a cutting edge in the opening 45 minutes to take advantage of their opponents’ woes. On more than once occasion the final ball was lacking, while there was also a lack of urgency for the visitors in getting men forward.
Santi Cazorla came close to getting Theo Walcott in, but goalkeeper Volkan Demirel just reacted quick enough to get to the ball first. The closest to an opening goal came right at the end of the period, when it took a series of desperate last-ditch interventions from Fenerbahce to prevent Arsenal from having a clear shot on goal.
Incredibly the home side had not had a single shot at goal in the opening period. Dirk Kuyt, looking to inject some impetus, rectified that unflattering stat with a shot over from distance at the start of the second half. But it was to prove something of a false dawn for Ersun Yanal’s side.
From Ramsey’s sublime low pass six minutes into the second half, Walcott got inside left-back Michael Kadlec and fed a low inviting ball across the six-yard box and on this occasion there was an Arsenal player ready to take advantage as Gibbs turned the ball into the roof of the net at the far post. The crucial away goal had been supplied and Arsenal’s lead was nearly doubled moments later. Volkan was forced to deny Walcott at close range after the winger’s initial shot had deflected back into his path.
There was quickly a brief warning at the other end. Wojciech Szczesny was forced into action for the first time as he just beat Moussa Sow to a flick-on and took a boot to the side of his face for his troubles. But Fenerbahce had not gotten the wakeup call.
Embodying his side’s listless performance, Fenerbachce’s goalkeeper was badly caught out as Arsenal made it 2-0 on 64 minutes. Ramsey, who brought his fine preseason form into this fixture, was given space to carry the ball toward the edge of the box before firing a good low shot from 20 yards, but one that should have been kept out by Demirel rather than just helped into the corner of the net.
The hosts posed an intermittent threat following the arrival off the bench of big summer signing Emmanuel Emenike, but in truth they never looked like getting back into the match or the tie. And, with 13 minutes remaining, Arsenal’s place in the lucrative and prestigious group stage was all-but secured.
From a long cross-field pass, Walcott’s excellent first touch took him inside Kadlec and the beleaguered full-back bundled down the England international to result in a clear penalty and complete his torrid night. Giroud was the man to step up and side-footed confidently into the side of the net.
Far greater challenges are to come and Arsenal will need significant investment if they are to conquer them, but, for tonight at least, Wenger will sleep easy.