Arsenal still have work to do after stalemate in Istanbul

Gunners will be without Aaron Ramsey for return leg of Champions League play-off

 Arsenal’s Olivier Giroud tries to get a shot away while under pressure from the Besiktas defence during the Champions League play-off  in Istanbul, Turkey. Photograph: Tolga Bozoglu/EPA

Arsenal’s Olivier Giroud tries to get a shot away while under pressure from the Besiktas defence during the Champions League play-off in Istanbul, Turkey. Photograph: Tolga Bozoglu/EPA


Besiktas 0 Arsenal 0

Arsenal’s pristine record in Champions League qualifying games has been sullied, even if a bad-tempered stalemate in Istanbul still offers hope that passage can be forced into the group stage of this competition for a 15th consecutive season. Just as Arsène Wenger had warned in the build-up, this brush with Besiktas is proving a stern test of his team’s credentials.

The Turks were impressive opponents and must now be overcome in London next week without the suspended Aaron Ramsey, Arsenal’s developing talisman, after his red card here. His departure for two bookable offences had left the visitors depleted for the final 10 minutes, though, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain forced Tolga Zengin into a marvellous late save, tipping his shot on to a post, as the visitors threatened unlikely victory at the last.

Given the flurry of opportunities missed by the hosts, emerging unscathed seemed a notable achievement. Indeed, Slaven Bilic’s pained reaction towards the end suggested the manager recognised this as an opportunity missed. The Croat was sent to the stands in stoppage time, his scowl betraying his exasperation.

This had always threatened to be an awkward fixture, not least taking into account Besiktas’s impressive home record in Uefa qualifying games but also, and perhaps more significantly, the tricky conditions in the Turkish club’s adopted home. Wenger had grimaced at the state of the turf before kick-off, the surface far from pristine, though just as influential was the wind whistling down into this rather lop-sided arena over the single-tier stand behind the goal initially patrolled by Zengin. The gusts blew the length of the pitch and straight into Wojciech Szczesny’s goalmouth at the other end of the ground, ensuring the whirlwind start that the vociferous home crowd demanded.

Arsenal seemed stretched whenever Olcay Sahan and Mustafa Pektemek, the Turks’ two wider attackers, ran at retreating defenders in those frantic early stages. The tone had been set after six seconds, Demba Ba collecting the kick-off by the centre-spot and pummelling a shot, which caught Szczesny and his team-mates by surprise. The ball caught the breeze and soared towards goal to be touched on to the bar by the Pole at full stretch. The crowd, bellowing raucously and igniting their flares, hardly seemed to notice how close their team had come to forcing the most startling of early leads.

They were more appreciative of Ba’s left-footed volley, which was thumped from the former Arsenal trainee Oguzhan Ozyakup’s wonderfully arced centre to be tipped away by Szczesny. The former Chelsea forward, eking space behind Calum Chambers, was clearly relishing the chance to tear into a team he had almost joined a year ago, his link-up play just as impressive as the bite he offered at the centre of an attacking trident. Yet his best opportunity of the first period was spurned after Chambers’s composure momentarily wavered as another long clearance sailed at him from deep. He slipped as he tried to connect and contrived only in liberating Ba, who collected on his chest, turned inside Koscielny but drilled his shot wide of the near post.

Arsenal had been warned, the miss wasteful and deflating the hosts’ optimism. Not that they had been entirely secure themselves. There is too much attacking verve in Wenger’s side for them to remain quelled for long and their own wingers, Santi Cazorla and Alexis Sánchez, had enjoyed the space offered up by wary full backs. The recalled Olivier Giroud air-kicked in front of goal on the stroke of half-time and might have scored earlier when the Frenchman collected Sánchez’s low centre but was not quite able to spin Ersar Gulum to gain a clear sight of goal. Giroud’s effort still spun up and might have drifted in had Pedro Franco not belted it from the goalmouth.

Jack Wilshere, too, had tested Zengin and there was menace in the England international’s darts through the middle. But, in the main, Arsenal were content foraging forward on the break with the urgency all Turkish, even if Besiktas’s ambition was rather undermined by their own profligacy. When Ozyakup, on the bench when Arsenal were thrashed 8-2 at Old Trafford three years ago, slipped Sahan into space the forward turned smartly inside Koscielny but, yet again, erred with the shot. The effort drifted wide of the far post, with Szczesny relieved and Bilic gnashing in frustration in his technical area.

The former Everton and West Ham centre half had never beaten Arsenal as a player in his time in England and his frustration voiced regularly through a fractious second period, with the Serbian referee labouring at times to keep tempers in check. The flurry of yellow cards was always likely to prompt red at some point with Ramsey, cautioned for an earlier offence on Necip Uysal, penalised much to his disgust for a foul on Ozyakup. Arsenal will miss his ability to prise opponents apart at the Emirates next week, particularly with this tie still very much on edge. There is work still to be done.

(Guardian Service)

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