Arsenal let off the hook by Besiktas as Ramsey sees red
Besiktas 0 Arsenal 0
Arsenal's once flawless Champions League play-off record has suffered its first blemish but Arsene Wenger is unlikely to have felt any more relief in winning the 12 previous fixtures than after last night's first-leg draw.
With Aaron Ramsey sent off, Arsenal rode their luck in Istanbul to survive considerable pressure from a Besiktas team inspired by Demba Ba. In the stadium that Liverpool staged their memorable comeback from 3-0 down against AC Milan in the Champions League 10 seasons ago, it is no exaggeration to say that, with better Besiktas finishing, Arsenal might have needed similar heroics in the return leg.
As it is, even without Ramsey, they will be clear favourites at the Emirates next Wednesday to secure their place in the group phase for a 17th consecutive year.
Wenger had begun what is his 20th quest to win the Champions League with either Arsenal or Monaco by taking one of the more notable gambles of his coaching career.
Per Mertesacker might have been just short of the match fitness that Wenger ideally wanted but he could quite easily have made the trip to Istanbul to provide cover for a defence that was severely lacking in options.
Wenger, though, ruled that his vice-captain should continue his preparation for Saturday's match against Everton at home and, in only his third senior centre-back appearance, selected Calum Chambers (19) alongside Laurent Koscielny. It left only Hector Bellerin and Ignasi Miquel as specialist defensive options on the bench and Wenger hoping Koscielny would suffer no recurrence of his recent Achilles injury.
The match began extraordinarily. Straight from the kick-off, Ba saw that Wojciech Szczesny was off his goalline and smashed a full 50-yard shot in the direction of the Arsenal goal. As time seemed to stand still, Szczesny scurried back and, with his 6ft 4in frame at full stretch, tipped Ba's audacious effort on to the crossbar.
The gasps from all around the Ataturk Olympic Stadium soon turned to vociferous encouragement for Besiktas and whistles every time an Arsenal player touched the ball. With Slaven Bilic immediately making his way to the touchline and urging his players forward, it was quickly obvious that Arsenal's ability to withstand pressure would be critical.
Oguzhan Ozyakup, who left Arsenal in 2012 after failing to break into the first team, then delivered a perfectly weighted cross for Ba. The former Chelsea and Newcastle United striker cleverly peeled into space behind Chambers and forced an excellent save from Szczesny with his left-footed volley.
Bilic's game plan was to attack Arsenal's defensive vulnerabilities but the flip side was a susceptibility to the counter. Alexis Sanchez was especially dangerous down Arsenal's right and created three good chances.
Olivier Giroud, back leading the line following a hamstring injury to Yaya Sanogo, was just unable to get a shot away from his first opportunity and then headed over.
Santi Cazorla also dragged a shot across goal after being released by Sanchez. A poor pitch did not help Arsenal to establish their rhythm but the adventure of Besiktas placed considerable pressure on their defence, especially Nacho Monreal.
Veli Kavlak was the next Besiktas player to test Szczesny with a powerful shot but then Giroud crossed for Sanchez, whose lack of height allowed Ramon Motta to make a potentially goal-saving headed clearance. Jack Wilshere broke forward from central midfield and, while there were potentially better options to his right, did force a good diving save from Tolga Zengin in the Besiktas goal.
Besiktas had comfortably seen off Feyenoord in the previous qualifying round and, with Ba clearly thriving as their talisman, there was still no compromise in their attacking strategy.
Ba came within inches of scoring on the stroke of half-time when, having brilliantly turned the defence and sent Szczesny the wrong way, he pulled his shot just wide.
Besiktas had another excellent chance at the start of the second half when Ozyakup dissected Arsenal's defence, only for Olcay Sahan to direct his shot beyond Szczesny's far post. The look of utter frustration on Bilic's face told its own story.
Wenger was then forced into a change and, with Mikel Arteta limping, Mathieu Flamini was tasked with providing added protection to a back four who were now rocking. The captaincy shifted to Koscielny but Arsenal found it even more difficult to discover their usually fluid patterns of passing.
As well as providing a persistent goal threat with his movement, Ba's all-round link-up play was excellent and instrumental in keeping Arsenal pinned back.
Sanchez's first-half threat had diminished and Wenger eventually responded by bringing on Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. A period of pressure followed as Cazorla tested Zengin with a free-kick but, just as it seemed that the momentum had turned for Arsenal, they lost Ramsey.
He had been booked for an earlier challenge on Necip Uysal and, while there was certainly contact as he clumsily used his arm to impede Ozyakup's run, it was the softest and most needless of red cards.
Oxlade-Chamberlain, though, still almost won it in added time, but his shot was brilliantly turned on to the inside of the post by Zengin. (© Daily Telegraph, London)