When it comes to the Champions League, Arsenal just know how to qualify. Alexis Sanchez got off the mark for his new club as Arsene Wenger’s troops secured a tight 1-0 win over Besiktas at the Emirates to guarantee their passage to the group stage.
For a while now, many pundits and football fans have questioned whether or not Arsenal have what it takes to be a Premiership winning team again. After all, it had been years since Arsene Wenger had composed a squad that could challenge on multiple fronts for silverware, and aside from the 2009/2010 season that saw Cesc Fabregas lead a legitimate Premiership challenge that ultimately faltered, the Arsenal of the golden era that existed in the early-to-mid 2000s seemed to have disappeared. Many wondered whether or not this had to do with Wenger being unable to adapt to the modern football landscape in which millions and millions of pounds must be spent in order to mount any sort of challenge with real credentials. Another overwhelming factor seemed to have been the lack of spirit within the squad, that final element that sees teams play badly on occasion but still claim results when necessary, grinding out wins in hard places and situations.
Well then, it seems as if, at least if recent results are anything to go by, that Wenger may have once again formed a squad of players balanced nicely with experience and youth (as is the Wenger way) that is capable of causing trouble for the billionaires that rule the current football landscape.
This morning saw Arsenal determinedly grind out a fantastic, if not spectacular or beautiful, win at the Emirates against Besiktas, which sees them enter the group stage of the Champions League for the 17th consecutive year. It was not done in a pretty fashion, it wasn’t convincing, and yet the squad showed that it is capable of competing on multiple platforms – and without key players like Aaron Ramsey and Olivier Giroud.
The match began with the rough draw at Everton on the players minds, most tangibly perhaps due to the near-identical squad that graced the pitch, with only Koscielny coming in to replace the still-green Calum Chambers at centre-half. With Giroud having suffered a broken tibia, Alexis Sanchez started up front once again, and if the first 15 or so minutes were anything to go by, Arsenal were looking to brush off the Turkish hopefuls with ease. Two near-misses by Jack Wilshere and Santi Cazorla kept Besiktas on their toes, however the two strikes seemed to have been the peak of what was otherwise a very unconvincing half from the North London side.
To exacerbate the warning signs that Arsenal may yet miss out on European competition for the first time in Wenger’s time at the helm, there were two substantial penalty cries when first Debuchy slid in carelessly against Mustafa Pektemek, barely nudging the ball with the tip of his toe, then Wilshere slid in even more drastically against Motta, with replays showing that were this the first leg, Arsenal may very well have been 1-0 at half time. This did not come to pass though, and instead it was Arsenal who took the lead just before the break, after Wilshere, in one of his many bursting runs, linked up nicely with Cazorla, before allowing Sanchez to slot home his first goal in red and white, securing a spot in the group stage.
The second half saw a rather nervy performance from both sides, with Arsenal not really daring to surge forward for fear of leaving too much space in behind, and with Besiktas unable to find a rhythm due to Mathieu Flamini’s decisive tackling and Wilshere’s excellent, energetic performance; one that was well timed with many corners of the press – and fans – expressing views that the English international needs to step up after a couple of lacklustre campaigns in recent times.
Though it might be worth noting that Mikel Arteta’s ball-playing ability from deep was missed, Wilshere did very well to fill in for Aaron Ramsey, often picking up the ball from halfway and making surging runs toward the opposition’s goal. In fact, on the back of that performance, it is safe to say that he may still live up to the great expectations that have been piled on him from the tender age of 16.
This isn’t to say that Besiktas didn’t have their opportunities, with Demba Ba coming closest after shooting into the side netting after a perfectly weight cross-field ball found him inside the Arsenal penalty area. These chances may have been few and far between, but with 15 minutes to go, Debuchy felt the wrath of some questionable refereeing, receiving a second yellow card which will see him miss the first group stage game and allowing Besiktas one last chance to pinch the tie.
The final 14 minutes were a tense affair, with Besiktas pushing very hard on goal, but often leaving their defenders outnumbered. Demba Ba again had a chance with a deep cross dropping too him at the far post, but the former Chelsea man failed to anticipate Mertesacker’s miss and the ball sailed harmlessly out for a goal kick.
With a tired midfield, the Gunners seemed happy to grind out the result, and by the time the final whistle blew, the score remained 1-0, and the joy on Gooners’ faces everywhere was mirrored by the ecstatic celebration that Wenger produced on the sideline.
So while it still may be much too soon to label this squad one with Premiership credentials, especially considering the already bloated injury-list and a number of missed opportunities to put the game to bed almost coming back to haunt them, one can at least note that the spirit is certainly not lacking, and with a one or two more additions in defence and attack, the Arsenal of the golden age may be making a return.