Arsenal rise above negativity to record morale-boosting victory
Goals from Gibbs, Ramsey and Giroud make return leg in London a formality
Arsenal’s Kieran Gibbs celebrates his goal against Fenerbahce in Istanbul. Photograph: Murad Sezer/Reuters
Fenerbahce 0 Arsebal 3: Arsene Wenger had hoped for a sort of sanctuary amid the mayhem at this bear-pit of an arena, a dose of “real football” rather than wearying talk of crisis and the lack of signings. The Arsenal manager expressed the belief that the footballing world would see the quality of his existing players, as the club pushed to advance through the Champions League play-off and reach the group phase of the competition for the 16th consecutive season.
They did precisely that and Wenger could reflect on the granting of his every wish. Next Tuesday’s second leg in London has been rendered academic. Arsenal were superior in every aspect from the first minute to the last and their place in the group stage of the Champions League looks all but assured after they secured a 3-0 away victory in the first leg of their qualifying play-off tie.
The Gunners claimed their first goal six minutes into the second half when Kieran Gibbs turned the ball in from Theo Walcott’s low cross. Thirteen minutes later Aaron Ramsey added another, drilling an effort from outside the box that goalkeeper Volkan Demirel made a hash of trying to keep out. Walcott was then bundled over in the area by Michal Kadlec and Olivier Giroud converted the resulting penalty on 77 minutes.
After the disastrous home defeat by Aston Villa, this was reassuring, even if the opposition was so poor. Fenerbahce roused themselves only at 2-0 down and by then the die had been cast. The only downside for Wenger was the grisly facial injury that forced the withdrawal of Laurent Koscielny.
The sense that Wenger and his squad were playing the occasion and everything around it, as well as the second-best team in Turkey, had been reinforced during Tuesday night when supporters set off fireworks outside the Arsenal hotel.
Conspiracy hung in the air. Fenerbahce are on a final warning from Uefa over fireworks and flares and they have been threatened with suspension from European competition. They already face being kicked out of this season’s Champions League if they are found guilty of match-fixing; the verdict is due next Wednesday. Fenerbahce supporters said before the tie that it had been their Galatasaray rivals who lit the fireworks. Only in Istanbul.
Arsenal settled better. Fenerbahce were guilty of misplaced passes and they struggled for rhythm. Wenger had again started Lukas Podolski among the substitutes, but Santi Cazorla, who began on the left, looked capable of producing a spark.
There was a balance to the Arsenal midfield, with Tomas Rosicky dropping back to make a central three when they needed to be solid. They knitted together slick passing moves and threatened, but could not find an end-product before the interval. Olivier Giroud headed off target, Ramsey screwed a shot wide and Theo Walcott was thwarted by a saving challenge.
Arsenal endured an injury scare when Jack Wilshere felt his right ankle after a tackle from Mehmet Topal and they suffered the real thing when Koscielny leaned in to win a header on 30 minutes.
Pierre Webo raised his boot dangerously, seeking the ball, but he made a sickening connection with Kosielny’s brow. The Arsenal defender, bloodied and dazed, was forced off. Wenger moved Bacary Sagna into central defence and introduced Carl Jenkinson at right-back.
The comfort became pronounced when Arsenal sculpted the breakthrough. Finally, there was a killer pass which sliced Fenerbahce apart and it was a thing of beauty from Ramsey. Walcott was in, beyond Michal Kadlec, and when he chose to drill for Gibbs at the far post, the full-back steered home.
As the crowd fell temporarily silent, Arsenal celebrated as a group and Gibbs had to readjust the plaster above his eye - the legacy of his head injury from Saturday’s defeat to Aston Villa. Blood and guts was a theme of the evening. Wojciech Szczesny was caught late by Moussa Sow and he suffered scrape marks to his neck.
Arsenal went for the jugular. Walcott was denied by Volkan Demirel and Wilshere shot at him after showing quick feet but when Ramsey was allowed to run unchallenged, his low shot proved too strong for the Fenerbahce goalkeeper.
Sow had a couple of chances and the substitute Emmanuel Emenike drew a sharp last-minute save out of Szczesny but Giroud’s penalty, after Kadlec’s foul on Walcott, was Arsenal’s emphatic final word.