Arsene Wenger exited yesterday’s match between his side and Besiktas, a proud, happy man, winning 1-nil.
The match winner, Alexis Sanchez, and Santi Cazorla, a tireless worker in midfield, were also ennobled by the sweet victory. They had completed 90 minutes but it had taken its toll. This will have made happy viewing in the households of Nigel Pearson and his Leicester City players, Arsenal’s opponents on Sunday.
It was tight. Tighter than it has been for many years. Too tight for comfort, by the end. Arsenal tend to stroll through this little technicality in their Champions League programme, the qualification phase. Not on Wednesday night.
They were a goal ahead shortly before half-time but it afforded a false sense of security. Having failed to score in Istanbul, their single goal did not alter the requirement for Besiktas. An equaliser would still do it and as they went in search of one, so Arsenal’s certainty faded.
By the time the home side were reduced to 10 men with 15 minutes to go, it is fair to say panic was spreading, certainly in the stands. Arsenal are a better team than Besiktas, but they were terrifyingly vulnerable to a single aberration, a slack moment of marking or a freak, deflected equaliser. Well outside their comfort zone, the fans bawled and screamed their frustration.
To be fair, the anger over Mathieu Debuchy’s dismissal was misplaced. He was rightly booked in the first half for choosing to meet Olcay Sahan with his shoulder, rather than challenging fairly in the air, and taking a yellow card into the second half his clumsy manhandling of Mustafa Pektemek was always going to invite trouble. Referee Pedro Proenca, from Portugal, showed a red and the Emirates erupted, but it was more out of fear than justified indignation.
Calum Chambers was then booked for coming on to the field prematurely as Wenger sought to reshuffle the team, and may have a greater beef, but as Besiktas had been denied a very plausible first-half penalty, it is fair to say Arsenal got the best of any incompetence.
It would have been a strange penalty, but no less warranted for that. Jack Wilshere, who was exceptional bar this moment of madness and a miss after nine minutes that could have put Arsenal in early command, made a desperate lunge from behind in an attempt to stop Ramon Motta. It was hard to identify specific contact at first, save for the coincidence of both men falling within a split second of each other, but replays showed that in going to ground Wilshere’s hand had clipped Motta’s foot and perhaps sent him tumbling. Certainly, the circumstantial evidence would have convinced more than a few referees; and they would have been right.
Nevertheless, Arsenal had the better of the chances on the night and would have felt hard done by had Besiktas progressed. Even in a fraught second half, the best of it belonged to Arsenal and Sanchez in particular will be kicking himself for a miss in the 53rd minute which should have put the result beyond doubt. Debuchy also found the side-netting with a far-post header, Cazorla had an excellent chance blocked and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain could have done better from close range. Against that, Besiktas will feel they had their moments, not least when Mathieu Flamini made a hash of a pretty straightforward defensive clearance, allowing Demba Ba to seize the ball but plant it wide of Wojciech Szczesny’s goal.
In the final minute of normal time Ba could not get his head to a cross at the far post, having lost his marker. Had that gone in, there would have been no way back for Arsenal.
Instead, they are in Thursday afternoon’s draw for the Champions League proper, continuing a run of 17 straight campaigns. And, thanks to a warped seeding system, in Pot A, just like the biggest clubs in Europe, those that win domestic leagues and continental titles. It’s nice to be one of UEFA’s chosen few.
The result was the best news of the night, obviously. For Wenger, second best was the identity of Arsenal’s goalscorer — Sanchez, the man tasked with pretending to be a striker for the months when Olivier Giroud is absent with his broken foot. He isn’t a natural in the position by any means, maybe not even the solution if Wenger’s resolve wavers before the transfer deadline closes on Monday, but his first goal for the club was a vital one and that can only build confidence.
Sanchez’s display in a forward role at Everton last Saturday was unconvincing and his appearance as a lone striker here seen as something of a gamble, but he got the last word. It was quite a test for him, after all. The final qualification tie for the Champions League is no proving ground, with so much at stake and away goals counting double. Suppose Arsenal required two, or even three on the night? With Giroud injured and the prolific Aaron Ramsey suspended there was a lot of weight on Sanchez’s shoulders.
To his credit, he rose to the occasion. He didn’t have much of a first half, and certainly didn’t apply the pressure in the area that Giroud would, but when a chance presented itself he snatched at it, and in a good way. Moments earlier he had overrun a pass from Wilshere to widespread groans, so it is to Sanchez’s credit that he was instantly prepared to assume responsibility in front of goal again.
His moment came in the final minute of the half, after a headed clearance had found its way to Wilshere. He played a nice one-two with Mesut Ozil and looked to be shaping to shoot from the return pass. Letting the ball run, however, took it into the path of Sanchez who decided to eschew politeness and have a go, first time. Jackpot. Sanchez struck his shot low and goalkeeper Tolga Zengin could not get down quickly enough. Ultimately, it was all Arsenal required. For the 17th season in succession a delegation from the club will arrive in Monaco for the Champions League draw.
It was 1997-98 when balls were last placed in UEFA’s many pots without one containing Arsenal’s name. Princess Diana was still alive and a chap called Steve Jobs had just resumed working at Apple. Considering events at Milton Keynes on Tuesday night and how quickly a football club’s fortunes can change, Arsenal have every reason to be proud of that record. They might even allow themselves a little pat on the back and call it business as usual.
What they cannot say this time, however is that it was never in doubt. That little puff of the cheeks suggests Wenger knows it, too.