By Rob Kelly at Emirates Stadium
Alexis Sanchez scored his first goal for the club as Arsenal sealed their place in the Champions League group stage with a dramatic, almost unbearably tense victory.
The Gunners have now won 13 of the 14 play-off ties they have played in their history - but none can surely have been as closely-fought and as tight as this one.
Having taken the lead on the stroke of half-time through Alexis, the Gunners dominated the second half and spurned a host of opportunities.
But the sending off of Mathieu Debuchy after 75 minutes for a second bookable offence put them on to the back foot - and the closing stages were simply agonising.
But after four, long, tension-fuelled minutes of injury time, which included a huge chance for Demba Ba, the final whistle went to seal Arsenal’s 17th successive qualification for the group stage.
It had been some night. But all that mattered was the job had been done.
SETTING THE SCENE
Arsene Wenger had insisted in the build-up to the game that the size of the match, and its possible impact on his side’s season, had not entered his thinking. But with the tie so finely poised after the first leg, there was a palpable sense of tension in the crisp north London air.
Arsenal’s preparations had been hit by the foot injury Olivier Giroud sustained in the dying stages of Saturday’s 2-2 draw at Everton. Coupled with Mikel Arteta’s absence and Aaron Ramsey’s suspension, it was hardly ideal ahead of a game against robust opponents who had posed a real threat in Istanbul.
The manager made four changes to his side from that game, with Per Mertesacker partnering Laurent Koscielny at the heart of the defence for the first time this season. Elsewhere, Mathieu Flamini was stationed in front of the defence in place of injured captain Arteta, while Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain started on the right flank and Mesut Ozil lined up on the left.
Besiktas, who start their domestic campaign on Saturday, included former Gunner Oguzhan Ozyakup - who created five chances for his team-mates in the first leg - and ex-Newcastle and Chelsea striker Ba in their side.
Having been forced on to the back foot during the early exchanges in Turkey, Arsenal were determined to make a more positive start on home soil. In an intense, frenetic opening spell, they tore into Besiktas, denying them time and space on the ball and posing a real threat in attack.
With just eight minutes gone, Jack Wilshere burst through the middle, holding off two challenges on his way into the box before dragging a shot just wide. Moments later they forced goalkeeper Tolga Zengin into a rushed clearance that fell straight to Santi Cazorla, but his first-time effort flew wide.
The Gunners had Besiktas rattled, but while they may have had them on the ropes, they could not land the early blow their high-energy approach warranted.
The visitors, roared on by a vociferous away support, steadily began to assert themselves, with the elegant Ozyakup particularly keen to impose himself on his return to the club. Their gameplan was clear; to stay tight and compact, and break at speed on the counter-attack, but in truth they posed little threat until the final 15 minutes of the half.
Indeed, just before the break there was a major scare for the home fans when Olcay Sahan cut the ball back from the left byeline for the onrushing Ramon Motta, who went down under a Wilshere tackle in the box. Hearts were momentarily in mouths all over the Emirates, but referee Pedro Proenca waved play on.
The tension was crackling, but right on half time Arsenal had their breakthrough. It came after good work from Wilshere on the edge of the box to collect a loose ball, play a one-two with Ozil and find Alexis, who slotted home coolly into the bottom corner.
What a time to score - and what a way to set up the second half.
Having established the lead, you might have expected Arsenal to be less intent on attack at the start of the second period but within minutes they had already created two opportunities.
The first fell to Cazorla at the end of a flowing counter-attack, but the Spaniard’s left-footed drive arrowed across goal and wide. Moments later, Wilshere released Alexis in the box with a beautifully-disguised pass but the Chilean’s close-range strike was deflected inches wide of the far post.
The Gunners were trying to kill off the tie, continuing to dictate the pace and tempo of an increasingly-stretched game. But Besiktas had proved themselves to be stubborn opponents and that precious second strike continued to elude Wenger’s men.
Right on the hour mark the impressive Debuchy hit the side netting with a header from close range, while the visitors demonstrated their own attacking threat when Ba did the same soon afterwards.
This was still a game very much in the balance and as the clock wound on, the tension inside the Emirates continued to build.
With 75 minutes on the clock the drama deepened further as Zengin produced a wonder save from close range to deny Oxlade-Chamberlain, before Debuchy was sent off for a second bookable offence.
Fingernails were down to the bone as the 10-man Gunners sought to see things out, and they soon had a golden chance to seal it as substitute Calum Chambers picked out Alexis - but he blazed it over from 10 yards.
With 90 minutes on the clock, Besiktas had a glorious chance to nick the away goal that would have taken them through as an inswinging cross evaded Mertesacker and seemed destined for Ba’s head. But the former Chelsea striker did not react in time and the ball - thankfully - flew out for a goal kick.
That was it and the roar that greeted the final whistle told its own story. Arsenal will play Champions League football for a 17th season in a row.
Referee: Pedro Proença
Copyright 2021 The Arsenal Football Club plc. Permission to use quotations from this article is granted subject to appropriate credit being given to www.arsenal.com as the source.