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It would hardly have been the Arsenal Way if we had taken the easy road, yeah?
I don't know about you, but this game took ten years off my life. The same false-nine strikerless formation that fizzled so badly against Everton at the weekend also stuttered at times against the Turkish visitors here, but the Gunners did just enough to make it to the Champions League proper for the 17th consecutive time.
We damn sure wouldn't trade places with Manchester United today, anyway.
As mentioned, Alexis Sanchez was again handed the "striker" role in what amounted to a 4-6-0 formation. Jack Wilshere and Mathieu Flamini were in the center, with Mesut Ozil on the left (WHY ARSENE?), Santi Cazorla in the hole, and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain on the right. You can see why this could work on paper, and the season is young enough where it still might in the end. However, the early returns are not that promising.
Admittedly, I did not see every second of this one - I normally will DVR the midweek games and watch when I get home from work, but given that I was getting my Arsenal tattoo (see bottom of the report) tonight, I knew there was no way I could wait until then to find out what happened. So, a stream it was, while doing just enough work to stay onside with the boss.
Still, I saw enough to know that Arsenal once again had the lion's share of possession with precious little incision to go with it. Wilshere and Ox were buoyant in the early exchanges, with the former fashioning one of the few early chances. He was one-on-one with Besiktas keeper Tolga Zengin, but screwed his shot wide when he should have tested him at minimum.
Sanchez and Cazorla both worked their tails off as well, but neither could find a way through the packed Turkish rearguard. Santi, like Jack before him, probably should have done better when a chance did come his way. Zengin played a horrendous pass from the top of his area straight to the Spaniard, but our little dynamo rushed his chip attempt and sent it well wide.
Besiktas, for their part, rarely ventured upfield but threatened whenever they did. Wojciech Szczesny had to be alert to snuff out a long ball at the extreme edge of his penalty area, Demba Ba lurking in the background.
Even when they did present a danger though, the Arsenal defense were little short of heroic. Shortly before halftime, the fantastic Mathieu Debuchy made one of those inch-perfect sliding tackles in the penalty area that would have spelled disaster if he had been any less precise. Olcay Sahan hurtled down the wing and crossed in to Ramon Motta. They will tell you that Wilshere pulled him down, but that was never a penalty. Never. Frankly, it may have been the only decision that this idiot referee got right all day.
Gooner doubts were unquestionably beginning to creep in by now, but thankfully Gunner hearts held firm. I always say how goals just the either side of the halftime break are killers, and Sanchez found one that sent us in the group stage. Wilshere played a one-two with the otherwise-dreadful-again Ozil, but the German's pass got beyond him. Alexis decisively horned in on Wilshere, took it himself, and slid a low shot under Zengin and in. Not that I'm complaining, but that was astonishingly brutal goalkeeping from the Besiktas captain. It was a major fillip for us, though.
A second goal would have been better, but the visitors proved over the two legs that they were no mugs, and made life difficult for our attackers. Laurent Koscielny might have eased our nerves on a corner, but he missed his header entirely. How costly a similar play would be for the Turks later on! Speaking of, they occasionally found their way into our half of the field, but in retrospect (now that the Sword of Damocles has been stashed away for the moment) they rarely fashioned anything meaningful.
At the time, however, it was torture any time they had the ball at their feet. That occurred far more often when Gokhan Tore came on as a sub - he was easily their best player on the day.
Still, the match didn't truly flash over until about 15 minutes from time, when all of a sudden everything happened at once. One two-minute span saw the Ox get played in alone on Zengin - undoubtedly, he should have scored. He could only shovel a tame shot into the keeper's legs, though. Then, right after, this absolute clown of a referee showed Debuchy a second yellow card for an incident that perhaps may have been a garden-variety foul, but that's it.
The funny thing is, this muppet actually consistently gets Champions League and World Cup games, despite proving to be incapable of the responsibility at every turn. This is the same mong who bought Arjen Robben's dive in the 94th minute of the second round hook, line and sinker, resulting in the penalty kick that sent Mexico home.
If the preceding 75 minutes were nerve-wracking, the final 15 were a horror show to watch. You would need the TARDIS to work out just how that quarter-hour took a week and a half to finish, but that's what it felt like. The Turks, their tails truly up now, poured forward in waves.
However, much like the seaside fortress in their own home city of Istanbul, they encountered a bulwark that attackers could not overcome. Callum Chambers, on as a sub when Debuchy was dismissed, flung himself around with abandon. Nacho Monreal, so reviled on these pages normally, huffed and puffed and put out fires all over the place. Koscielny, as brave as ever, roamed the center and cleared out everything in sight. Per Mertesacker, our Big Fucking German, was calm and collected as ever with his signature brand of Teutonic cool.
Remember all those jokes about Arsenal's leaky defense over the last decade? They're done now. It's over.
Despite the red card, despite the referee continuing to wave yellow things at anything that found its way into his Mr. Magoo-esque vision, despite Besiktas rampaging forward with the desperation of a decent team on its way out of the Champions League, those four men - further shielded by Flamini - held firm. Even Sanchez put in a shift defensively towards the end.
There is something beautiful and so prototypically Arsenal about hanging on to a slim 1-0 lead with ten men. Somewhere, George Graham is smiling.
Four minutes of stoppage time came and went, Besiktas no closer to even a shot on target. That nimrod Pedro Proenca then blew his stupid little whistle, and we could all exhale once more. Now, for the love of God spend some more money, Arsene, and get in a striker and a defensive midfielder.
As for the Turks, they were ferocious opposition and it's a shame they couldn't get in along with us. Good luck to them in the UEFA Cup.
Onwards and upwards for us.
The Modern Gooner Player Ratings:
Szczesny 7, Monreal 8, Koscielny 8, Mertesacker 8, Debuchy 8, Wilshere 8, Flamini 7, Ozil 5
(Chambers 8), Cazorla 8, Oxlade-Chamberlain 7, Sanchez 8
(Chambers 8), Cazorla 8, Oxlade-Chamberlain 7, Sanchez 8
Man of the Match: I can't give it to one player today...they were all goddamn heroes. No? OK, fine, Alexis Sanchez for the $40 million goal.
Postscript: Here it is!