By a narrow margin and after some late scares, Arsenal qualified for the Champions League for a 17th straight time by edging Besiktas at the Emirates.
Wednesday's 1-0 win over Besiktas was another obstacle negotiated for Arsenal, who now have an astonishing 17 straight qualifications for the Champions League group stage. But it was not a comfortable night for the Gunners at the Emirates. Here are three things that caught our eye.
17 in a row for Arsenal
From the qualifying round to Pot 1 in Thursday’s draw: Once again, Arsene Wenger has delivered Arsenal into the Champions League group stage for a 17th season in succession. But this was a nervy occasion at the Emirates, as the host was, for a long time, an away goal from trouble. Before Alexis Sanchez scored the only goal of the game, Jack Wilshere could have had a penalty called against him. In the second half, Besiktas forward Demba Ba shot from close range into the side-netting (but was subsequently called for offside), and later on, just failed to connect with a header from three yards out.
Arsenal continued to make life difficult for itself. Around the 70-minute mark, Alexis ran half the length of the pitch to set up Santi Cazorla, whose shot was blocked. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain's subsequent effort from six yards was kept out by goalkeeper Tolga Zengin. As Besiktas countered, Mathieu Debuchy committed a foul and was sent off with his second yellow card of the match, leaving Arsenal with ten men for the tense final 15 minutes.
Yet the Gunners held on and once again will be among the contenders for the top prize in the European game. Reaching the group stage is worth about €30M to the club, but this was not just about the money; it’s also about the prestige of simply being in the Champions League. Wenger called this fixture Arsenal’s most important before Christmas: No wonder the final whistle was greeted with cheers of relief.
It would be typical Wenger not to buy a striker
Over the summer, Wenger explained how the pressures of the modern manager have changed. When he started out as a coach and his team lost, he said, the fans would moan as they left the ground, criticize the team when they got home and maybe take some stick from their work colleagues on Monday. Now, he said, they get home, go online and vent their anger on social networks; other people join in, and suddenly, momentum and pressure build.
That happened in quick succession last weekend. First, when Olivier Giroud missed a few chances before heading in a dramatic equalizer in the 2-2 draw at Everton, the narrative was that he wasn't good enough for the Gunners. And then, after he was ruled out for the rest of the calendar year with a broken foot, it was all about which player Arsenal must sign to replace him.
But it would be typical Wenger if he did not sign another forward. After all, he does have two new forward players in his squad for this season: The match-winner Alexis, who started at center forward, and Joel Campbell, who stayed on the bench.
This was a big game for Alexis, who was replaced after an ineffectual 45 minutes at Everton. He showed early signs of promise, with a burst of pace through the middle allowing Wilshere the chance to shoot just wide. It seemed significant when Mesut Ozil broke clear down the left and played a pass for Sanchez at the near post as the Chilean had made his run to the far post. But on the stroke of halftime, he opened his Arsenal account, toe-poking the ball home after an exchange between Ozil and Wilshere. The relief at the Emirates was palpable, and it’s the kind of moment that can kick-start a season.
Wenger kept Yaya Sanogo on the bench and can use Theo Walcott, when he’s fit again, as a center forward. Arsenal’s priority in the last four days of the transfer window may be a center back or a defensive midfielder. But the urgency for a striker? Probably not.
Another red card for Arsenal
If Wenger was annoyed by the red card that Aaron Ramsey was shown in the first leg, he will be furious at Mathieu Debuchy's dismissal for two yellow cards here. Debuchy's second was for hauling back Mustafa Pektemek, and it left Arsenal short-handed for a second European game running. Arsenal can ill afford the suspensions, and though Calum Chambers once again proved unflappable in a frantic finale, Arsenal’s task could have been simpler. Debuchy did himself no favors by coming onto the pitch after the final whistle and, in his training top, approaching referee Pedro Proenca and complaining about his decision. Eventually, Mathieu Flamini ushered him away.
"We finished both games with 10 men," said Wenger after the game. "I feel the first [red card] was very harsh, and tonight's was very harsh as well. Debuchy went for the ball and he played the ball, there was no intention to make a bad foul, and he won the ball. Maybe the referee was on the other side of the player and thought he fouled him. But we managed to deal with it."
In the absence of Ramsey, Wilshere had an outstanding game, but you sense that Arsenal might not have missed all those chances had Ramsey been on the pitch. For now, the red cards mean no harm done. But if they continue as the season progresses, the lack of discipline will hurt Arsenal eventually.