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. This ended as a fractious occasion, with Aaron Ramsey dismissed, the Besiktas manager, Slaven Bilic, sent from the dug-out and Arsène Wenger pelted with a bottle from the stands as he departed on the final whistle.
That incident has been reported to Uefa though, in truth, Wenger will be grateful to have emerged unscathed in more ways than one from this awkward first leg. The visitors’ substitute Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain rattled a post in the final minute, Tolga Zengin reacting superbly in the home goal to tip the effort on to the woodwork, but the better opportunities created and missed here were Turkish from the moment they struck the bar after six seconds. Arsenal left Turkey with Ramsey banned and Mikel Arteta limping but still issuing a hefty sigh of relief.
The Spaniard’s injury had been inflicted by Demba Ba’s unpunished tackle and Arteta’s twisted ankle renders him a serious doubt for Saturday’s trip to Everton. At least the Londoners will have their German contingent back in contention on Merseyside and may lean heavily on Mesut Özil in next week’s return if the Turks are to be breached. Their forwards were preoccupied for long periods trying to quell the hosts’ intent, Santi Cazorla and Alexis Sánchez impressing with their industry rather than their invention. Yet, even so, they had cause to be grateful for the home side’s profligacy. Better teams would have capitalised in the blustery Ataturk Olympic Stadium to carry a lead into the second leg.
Ba had been key to their threat, supplied by eager forwards in Olcay Sahan and Mustafa Pektemek and the clever promptings of the former Arsenal youth team player Oguzhan Ozyakup from central midfield. The Senegalese striker had struck the crossbar after six seconds, collecting the kick-off and pummelling a shot at goal which caught Woijcech Szczesny and his team-mates by surprise. The ball caught the breeze that whistles through this lopsided arena to soar goalwards and the goalkeeper reacted smartly to touch the ball on to the bar 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 thumped from Ozyakup’s wonderfully arced centre which was tipped away by Szczesny. The former Chelsea forward, seeking out space behind Calum Chambers, relished the chance to tear into a team he 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 was spurned. The composure of the otherwise impressive Chambers momentarily wavered as another long clearance sailed at him from deep. He slipped as he tried to connect and contrived only to liberate Ba, who collected on his chest, turned inside Laurent Koscielny but drilled his shot wide of the post.
Sahan was just as culpable after the break, again drifting away from Koscielny and on to Ozyakup’s pass only to curl his shot wide with Szczesny helpless. “Arsenal had their chances – they create them against whoever they play – but we were closer to beating them,” said Bilic. “We had clearer chances. But, simply, if you want to beat Arsenal you have to score from one of those chances. Nobody respects Arsenal more than I do but I wouldn’t have taken this result before the game. I was really hoping to win this game.”
That might have explained the Croatian’s late frustration. He was infuriated by Mathieu Flamini crumpling to the turf having been winded by a loose pass just as Beskitas were mounting an attack, and the Serbian referee ordered him to retire to the stands.
By then Arsenal were depleted after Ramsey was penalised for soft fouls on Necip Uysal and Ozyakup, much to the Welshman’s disgust. The former Italy referee Pierluigi Collina had urged Uefa’s officials only last week to clamp down on what might once have been considered minor offences and Ramsey was duly penalised. His bursts from midfield will be missed at the Emirates, even if Özil’s return may compensate. “They’ll be without Ramsey and, even if they have many great midfield players, he is their top man,” said Bilic. “We’re going to London not to go shopping in Harrods but to try to fulfil, some would say, our dream. I’d say our task, our plan.”
Wenger can afford to be more optimistic. This may have been the first time in 13 qualifying games that his team have failed to emerge victorious, but Arsenal can claim the tie if they summon something slicker than this in Wednesday’s return. This seemed like an escape. Next week must yield progress.