It was as nervy as it could have possibly been. But for the 17th straight year, Arsenal are through to the Champions League Group Stage. Arsenal won 1-0, but the story became so much more complicated when Mathieu Debuchy was sent off with a quarter of an hour to play.
I don’t know why I was never that nervous about this match going in. I probably should have been when Aaron Ramsey got his red card, when the 0-0 draw in Istanbul meant an opening goal from Besiktas would make Arsenal need two goals, and when Olivier Giroud went down with a long-term leg injury. But strangely, I was never as worried as I should have been before the match. Those worries would soon manifest themselves
The first half played out as I expected. Arsenal took command of the match from the start, but aside from a chance or two, never looked likely to score a goal. It was Besiktas that had the better chances, or at least more calls for a penalty, and a few Arsenal tackles led to some nervy seconds waiting for the referee’s whistle. But the Gunners were chipping away at the Besiktas defense, probing throughout. It was physica, and not all that pretty. But a late goal that came from almost nothing by new-boy Alexis Sanchez sent Arsenal into the break ahead.
I do think Arsenal got lucky in the first half as the Turkish side easily could have had two penalties. Mathieu Debuchy probably should have been sent off for a tackle in the box that was not deemed a foul. A goal from the spot then and the red card would have put Arsenal in a terrible position. And Jack Wilshere too was very fortunate not to give away a penalty with a challenge that was so poorly timed, he hardly reached the attacker, much less the ball. A lot of decisions go against Arsenal, but these ones certainly went in our favor.
The match could have been put to bed in the second half, as Sanchez and Mathieu Debuchy both had good chances right next to goal. As the game opened up, Jack Wilshere and Mesut Özil linked up well. There was one shaky moment when Mathieu Flamini’s failed clearance led to a Demba Ba shot that hit the side netting, but Arsenal looked a lot more likely to score.
Besiktas committed hordes of men forward, and Arsenal had two or three gilt-edged chances around the 70th minute to get the important second goal. But then came Debuchy’s second yellow card that saw Arsenal have to play the last 15 minutes with only ten men. The nerves that had evaded me became all too real then.
From an objective standpoint, I’m sure the last 15 minutes were wonderful to watch. But for a fan of one of the teams involved, it was agonizing. Tackles were flying in from left and right, yellow cards were coming at an alarming rate for both sides, and the game remained far too open for my liking whenever the referee wasn’t blowing his whistle. Demba Ba’s header that went just wide in the 89th minute nearly caused me to pull out all my hair.
But the defense held up thankfully. Everybody did their part in the end, admirably stepping up when they needed to. It was certainly nervy in the end. And Arsenal’s players put in such a heavy shift that many of them will need a rest this coming weekend. But Arsenal are through. Phew…
Player Ratings (1-10)
Alexis Sanchez – 8/10 – It was a fantastic sight to see Sanchez get on the score sheet for Arsenal. The goal wasn’t splendidly struck, but no one will care. He hadn’t been at his best before that and missed another good chance in the second half, but had put in a great shift. When he lost the ball, he usually fought until he got the ball back. He certainly looked capable of playing the central striker role today.
Santi Cazorla – 8.5/10 – Cazorla put in another hard-working shift, hounding the Besiktas midfielders and defenders when they got on the ball. Offensively, he played a few excellent long range through balls, especially when the match opened up. He lacked the final ball at times, but he was terrific in possession and made a lot of timely runs. His set pieces were also excellent today.
Mesut Özil – 7/10 – Özil drifted in and out of play, but it was he who played in Sanchez on the opening goal with a decisive pass that might have set up Wilshere as well. He read play well and looked threatening when he got on the ball. He might have been a little more decisive once the game opened up though.
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain – 7/10 – The Ox looked lively down the right from the start, as he and Debuchy began to form an understanding that was so clearly lacking in the previous matches. His desire to run at the Besiktas defenders caused a lot of problems, and he had his head up, finding a number of teammates with clever passing. He really should have scored right before Debuchy was sent off.
Jack Wilshere – 9/10 – Wilshere put himself in a lot of good positions today, having a lively game in midfield while showing off his physicality and vision with driving runs. But he made a rash challenge in the box that probably should have been a penalty, and he didn’t take the big chance that he created early in the first half. Overall, he had a sensational match, but it could easily have been disastrous or even better. He sets an incredibly high standard with much of his play that he doesn’t always match. But this match was definitely two steps in the right direction.
Mathieu Flamini – 7/10 – Flamini had a better game today than he did this past weekend. Besiktas didn’t have a whole lot going through the middle, but Flamini held firm for the most part when called upon. He also had a key block near the penalty area early in the first half when Besiktas looked threatening. But his failed clearance in the 63rd minute gifted Ba a great chance at goal. He, like many others, stepped up at the end.
Nacho Monreal 7/10 – Monreal appeared more at ease today. Besiktas didn’t have much going down Arsenal’s left side, and when they did Monreal was usually there to cut it out. He also got around to cover Debuchy a time or two. He also sent in a great cross to the Ox which should have given Arsenal its second goal. And in the final minutes, the left back didn’t put a foot wrong.
Laurent Koscielny – 7/10 – It was odd how many times the defense had a man break the line throughout the first half. I’ve rarely seen the offside trap fail like that with Koscielny and Mertesacker in the middle. This was their first match together of the season, and it showed. Thankfully, they got it together at half time. Koscielny did well individually, especially when he needed to do everything possible at the end. He stepped up big time when Arsenal needed all hands on deck.
Per Mertesacker – 7.5/10 – Mertesacker struggled with the pace of Demba Ba whenever he got caught too far forward, but in general, he did well. As always, his reading of the game saw him cover admirably for his fellow defenders. And he made some vital clearances late on. As exciting as Calum Chambers has been, the defense becomes less erratic with the veteran German in the middle.
Mathieu Debuchy – 6/10 – Debuchy flirted with disaster in this match before finding it, picking up an early yellow that set the tone for the right back. He probably should have been sent off soon after as I talked about above. He got his red card with a quarter of an hour left, one that although fair, he probably should have done without. It left his team in a horrible position with Besiktas needing only the one goal. But aside from that, he was pretty good today. His other tackles were well timed, and offensively he got forward with a lot of vigor.
Wojciech Szczesny – 7/10 – Szczesny had next to nothing to do until the final minutes. The few times he was involved though, he claimed crosses well. But when the game changed in the final minutes, Szczesny did his part, catching one ball in traffic at an impressive height. It was a good clean sheet.
Calum Chambers (76th) – 7/10 – He saw a yellow card before he took the field officially, putting himself in a precarious position as yellow cards were flying. But he performed admirably in such a high intensity situation. Chambers has maturity and composure well beyond his years.