Arsenal took a giant stride towards the Champions League group stages with a 3-0 win at Fenerbahce in the play-off first leg on Wednesday night.
Arsène Wenger’s side were pretty enough before the break. But after it, they would find a punch as well.
And the knockout blows were landed by Aaron Ramsey.
In Arsenal’s last visit to the Sukru Saracoglu Stadium in 2008 the Welshman, then 17, netted his first goal for the Club in injury time as the visitors roared home 5-2.
This evening he returned to show he was a more mature midfielder capable of controlling a game.
Six minutes after the break, his exquisite pass sent Theo Walcott clear down the right and the Englishman crossed for Kieran Gibbs to net his first European goal for Arsenal.
Just past the hour, Ramsey did it all by himself; cruising through midfield and firing home from just outside the box.
Those goals killed the game (and potentially the tie). Olivier Giroud’s late penalty just started nailing down the coffin lid.
This was the antithesis of Saturday. Almost everything, even the little things, went Arsenal’s way.
But they had been thoroughly earnt by the visitors via character and conviction as much as technique.
It all leaves Arsenal on the brink of a 16th successive season in Europe’s top competition.
A place they most certainly belong.
Before kick-off, you kind of felt Wenger’s men had been here before.
Two years ago, they had shrugged off a wounding two-goal defeat to Liverpool at Emirates Stadium to pull off a vital victory against Udinese four days later.
The scene was set for a repeat.
The only change was enforced. The unfortunate Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain had suffered a knee injury against Aston Villa that will keep him out for three months. Santi Cazorla, a late substitute on Saturday, started this time. Interestingly the Spaniard was deployed on the left flank as Tomas Rosicky retained his role through the middle.
Fenerbahce’s Sukru Saracoglu Stadium lived up to it raucous reputation before kick-off. However the pressure, from tonight and the weekend, would never hinder Arsenal.
They pressed with intent in the early stages through Walcott and Jack Wilshere on the right. Then Ramsey and Cazorla tried to pick holes in the Fenerbahce defence down the left.
A couple of times keeper Volkan Demirel flew out to clear the danger as Walcott scampered through. Rosicky collected the second of those and crossed for Giroud to slide a header just wide of the far post.
In the 25th minute, Walcott drove into the area and Ramsey fired the loose ball beyond the same piece of woodwork.
Until this point, Arsenal had been tidy and precise without ever truly threatening to score. Fenerbahce had offered very little.
In terms of pressure and possession, Arsenal were on top. But they needed a goal.
On the half-hour, Laurent Koscielny got an unintentional kick in the face from Pierre Webo and walked unsteadily off the pitch with blood visible. Carl Jenkinson came on and went to right back. Bacary Sagna moved into the middle alongside Per Mertesacker.
The change saw Arsenal lose their impetus until shortly before half-time when Rosicky and Wilshere set up Walcott 12 yards out. But the ball was stolen from the Englishman’s toe at the vital moment.
In injury time, Wilshere released Giroud down the left-hand channel but the striker sent a rising drive just over the bar.
At half-time, the visitors had everything but the lead. And they would find that soon enough.
But not before Ramsey had been barged off the ball in midfield and Dirk Kuyt’s dipping drive whizzed over the bar.
However the Welshman was delivering another huge performance in midfield. And, in the 51st minute, it was his perception that released Walcott down the right-hand channel. The Englishman fired a flat, low cross to Gibbs, who hammered the fourth goal of his Arsenal career high into the net.
It was nearly 2-0 almost immediately. Wilshere bulldozed through to release Walcott on goal but he was too close to Demirel, who blocked with his body.
Although Moussa Sow caught Szczesny on the neck as he bore down on goal, the focus was still at the other end.
On the hour, Wilshere conjured some space at the near post and saw a shot turned aside.
A couple of minutes later, Arsenal would find the net again. Ramsey went marauding through the midfield and, with the Fenerbahce defence backing away, fired low into the left-hand corner. Demirel got a hand on the effort and should have saved it but the 22-year-old deserved his goal.
The frugality of the first half had given way to generosity in the second.
The Arsenal defence had protected Szczesny well but they allowed Sow to rise unmarked at the near post only for him to head over the bar.
The same player then cracked a long-range effort onto the top of the net.
However Arsenal were still the more clinical side and they would prove it 16 minutes from time when Michal Kadlec bundled over Walcott in the area. Giroud converted with aplomb.
Szczesny made a fine late save from Kuyt’s cross-shot and Emmanuel Emenike’s fierce drive to secure Arsenal’s clean sheet.
You sensed they just would not be beaten this evening.
Referee: Gianluca Rocchi (ITA)
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