Arsenal’s hopes of securing a 17th successive spot in the Champions League group stages remain in the balance after a goalless draw at Besiktas on Tuesday evening in the play-off first leg.
It looked like being a tough night for Arsène Wenger’s side after only three seconds when Demba Ba fired against the crossbar from the kick-off. And so it proved.
The visitors teetered for sometime and Wojciech Szczesny made a fine save from the same striker soon afterwards. However they recovered sufficiently for Olivier Giroud to go close twice before half-time.
This open, entertaining game sustained its pace throughout and, apart from that opening Besiktas blitz, neither side properly held control over the other.
The scneario changed in the final 10 minutes when Aaron Ramsey was received a second yellow card and was sent off.
However Arsenal did not just cling on to what they had. In fact, with two minutes left, substitute Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain weaved into the area and planted a shot against the inside of the post.
It was the closest the visitors came to winning the game.
However, with home advantage next Wednesday, Wenger’s men will still be confident of progression.
SETTING THE SCENE
A slowly moving sea of red, white and black flags greeted Wenger’s side as they started their bid to reach the somewhat calmer waters of the group stages
Arsenal boasted a 100 per cent record in their 12 previous play-off games but these were always tension-filled affairs.
It was the same 12 months ago, again in Istanbul, before an Ramsey-inspired 3-0 win at Fenerbahce did the donkey work of qualification.
Besiktas were wearing black to commemorate the passing of former president Suleyman Seba. With Ba up front, ex-Arsenal youngster Oguzhan Ozyakup in midfield and manager Slaven Bilic in the dug-out, they would not want for knowledge of coping with English teams.
Where possible, Wenger stuck to the side that had beaten Crystal Palace. Hamstring injuries prevented Kieran Gibbs and Yaya Sanogo from travelling, Nacho Monreal and Olivier Giroud stepped up from the bench.
Arsenal might have been behind within three seconds. After receiving a tap back from the kick-off, Ba unleashed a powerful, dipping shot from the centre spot. Szczesny did well to adjust his position and tip the ball onto the bar.
It was all the encouragement the home side – and their fans – needed. They immediately flew into the visitors in pursuit of a tone-setting early goal. Arsenal struggled to keep them out.
In the ninth minute, Mustafa Pektemek floated an angled cross over the visiting defence in search of Ba. The striker’s volley was powerful and showed excellent technique but Szczesny’s save was every bit its equal.
Arsenal had been surprised by the hosts’ lightning start and had struggled to recover.
In the end they would conjure up a couple of decent chances in rapid succession to clear their heads. And Alexis was involved in the creation of both down the Arsenal right.
In the 11th minute he set up Giroud, who went to ground as he tried swivel the ball home at the near post. Then the Chilean combined with Jack Wilshere for Santi Cazorla to circle the area and drive across the face of goal.
As we reached the midway point of the first half, the game had evened out but it had barely dropped pace.
Giroud produced some clever wing play on the left but Ramon Motta nodded his drifting, far-post cross away from Alexis. At the other end, the impressive Pektemek continued to probe the Arsenal defence with penetrative pass and Veli Kavlak fired straight at Szczesny from range.
Wilshere exchanged passes with Giroud and fired straight at keeper Tolga Zengin. But Besiktas were still full of energy and enterprise.
A minute from half-time, they should have scored when Ba chased down a long ball forward and Calum Chambers mistimed his challenge. The striker weaved inside but dragged his effort wide with only Szczesny to beat.
With the final kick of the game, Giroud failed to connect from point-blank range after Ramsey had lifted the ball over the Besiktas defence.
At half-time, this was poised nicely for the neutral. While Arsenal fans could look forward to a nervy second period.
It might not have been that way had Ramsey shot first time when the opportunity momentarily presented itself on the edge of the Besiktas area. He tried to dink himself some space and the chance evaporated.
Then, as in keeping with this game, the home side nearly went ahead when Olcay Sahan found space on the left and curled an effort inches wide of the far post.
Mikel Arteta then limped off and Mathieu Flamini replaced him.
It was becoming increasingly difficult to fathom the scoreline. There was little midfield control from either side and the play ping-ponged to the edge of each box. The chances were not hardly clear-cut but there had been more than enough to break the deadlock.
Besiktas were starting to edge the game territorially before Alexis exchanged passes with Mathieu Debuchy down the right on 67 minutes and the Frenchman’s cutback was smuggled to safety.
It seemed Arsenal that were preparing for a s sustained assault in the final stages. They began the press and Cazorla forced a fumble from Zengin after they won a free-kick on the edge of the area.
Already booked, Ramsey got a second yellow for hauling down Ozyakup 10 minutes from time as Besiktas looked to break.
The sending off did not push Arsenal toward the defensive however and Chambers might have headed home from a corner in the dying minutes.
Then Oxlade-Chamberlain danced inside from the right flank and smacked a shot against the post.
So a ‘nearly’ night for Arsenal but the draw was just.
They will have to finish the job at Emirates Stadium next week.
Referee: Milorad Mazic
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