Hard to see Sanchez as Arsenal's main striker
PLAY-OFF, 2ND LEG
(Alexis Sanchez 45+1)
- Arsenal win 1-0 on aggregate
Arsenal booked their place in the Champions League group stages for the 17th consecutive time, but they put their fans through an emotional mangle first.
A goal on the stroke of half-time from Alexis Sanchez, his first in an Arsenal shirt, was just enough to secure the win.
But Besiktas refused to bow down and, when Mathieu Debuchy was sent off in the second half, it signalled a tense finish to the game. Arsenal prevailed. But that was only the good news. The bad news came afterwards with confirmation that striker Olivier Giroud is out, according to Arsene Wenger, until the end of December, or perhaps the beginning of January.
It's a heavy blow, especially given that the Gunners looked light in that department anyway.
But Wenger insisted that he is under no pressure to go out and spend.
He laughed off reports that he was preparing a bid for 33-year-old Birmingham City striker Nikola Zigic.
"Who?" he said with a deadpan face.
But the fact that he's not planning to buy anyone will certainly cause tension in north London.It should be said that Sanchez, deployed up front again despite his unremarkable performance against Everton last weekend, was much improved. He harried defenders, chased loose balls, scored one and could have grabbed another.
For all of that, however, it's hard to see him as a lone striker capable of leading the line all season.
Wenger said after the match that's exactly how he saw him, and that he hadn't been bought to play off the flanks.
It will, if nothing else, be an interesting experiment. Arsenal fans, relieved to have escaped a tricky tie, will be too grateful to care.
Besiktas were not the better team, but they certainly had chances to score an all-important away goal.
Demba Ba, the former Chelsea man, wasted two, driving one shot into the side netting from close range, and failing to make contact with a point-blank header.
Besiktas will also feel that they should have had two penalties. Both Debuchy and Jack Wilshere were involved in controversial moments in the first half but, realistically, only Debuchy's offence looked a plausible spot-kick.
Sensibly, given that he had to watch the game from the director's box after his tantrums last week, Besiktas boss Slaven Bilic declined to criticise the officials.
Wenger didn't hold back though. He was entirely unamused with referee Pedro Poenca.
The decision to send off Debuchy was one thing, but there were a number of other decisions that upset Arsenal, most notably the booking of Calum Chambers for apparently entering the field of play without his permission, and a caution to Wojceich Szczesny for time-wasting.
Wenger will wonder how every other club can do that to Arsenal without recriminations, but his goalkeeper always gets punished.
But there were positives in the tension, much needed ones in the case of Wilshere.
The young English midfielder has had a slow start to the season, but this was a far better display.
While he wasn't quite where he has been in the past, there was a real drive to his display, a desire and hunger that seasoned Wilshere-watchers recall from his early days.
In the absence of Aaron Ramsey, he had to turn up.
Santi Cazorla gave a tigerish display too, showing that the rapid accumulation of attacking midfielders might actually be a good thing for the squad.
Cazorla has always been a fine creative force, but this was a far more aggressive display, and it was much needed. In keeping Arsenal in Europe's premier competition for so long, Wenger has safeguarded their finances through an anxious period in their history. He has been pilloried for his failure to win more trophies, despite the fact that qualification for the group stages is so lucrative that it may as well come with its own silverware. He deserves great credit.
But, with Giroud injured and no replacement deemed worthwhile, you do wonder if Arsenal will be able to make a challenge for one of the really big prizes.
Sanchez has laid his claim for the striker's role and it will be fascinating to see if he can handle it.
Not least because, if he can't, there aren't many players behind him in the squad who can.
"For three or four months? He can play his whole life at centre forward. I bought him to play striker, not to play only on the flanks."
- Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger backing Alexis Sanchez to prove an able deputy for the injured Olivier Giroud
"If they improve (they have a chance). They are missing the strikers although Sanchez was good tonight. But to win it? With Bayern and Real Madrid? Football is strange, but it would be difficult."
- Besiktas coach Slaven Bilic on Arsenal’s chances of winning the Champions League
Liverpool have it easy, Man City face Bayern and CSK Moscow in Champions League
CLASH OF GIANTS: Bayern Munich's Franck Ribery (far right) will meet Man City's Pablo Zabaleta again. PHOTO: CARL RECINE/ACTION IMAGES
Fears that a third-pot seeding would ruin Liverpool's return to the Champions League proved misplaced as the Reds landed a group they should qualify from with a degree of comfort.
At the Champions League draw in Monaco yesterday, Brendan Rodgers' side were drawn with holders Real Madrid, but matches against Basel and Bulgarian underdogs Ludogorets Razgrad should not present a serious challenge.
All those crossed fingers in Merseyside did the trick.
Instead, it was Manchester City who found themselves with the horror draw.
Once again, they will have to play Pep Guardiola's Bayern Munich.
Once again, they will have to face CSKA Moscow, possibly in the cold winter months.
And, to make matters worse, they ended up with the most difficult team in the fourth pot, the resurgent Roma.
Manuel Pellegrini will have his work cut out here.
There was no chance of old acquaintance being forgot elsewhere as the cream of England and Germany all found themselves with familiar foes.
Arsenal met their old friends Borussia Dortmund in Group D and Chelsea will once again face Schalke in Group G.
Arsenal will not relish another trip to Istanbul, after the trouble they had overcoming Besiktas in the qualifying round but, with Anderlecht as the fourth team in the group, they will know that this is hardly a Group of Death.
Even with the injury to Olivier Giroud, it would be a surprise if Arsenal failed to progress.
It would be a miracle if Chelsea slipped up. Schalke have had another wobbly start to the season in Germany and are the most beatable of the German teams.
Sporting Lisbon are not the force they once were, but do have a Luis Nani in their ranks, and Maribor, conquerors of a miserable Celtic side.
Jose Mourinho should have that group sealed by match four.
Group H looked like the easiest group, but no English teams were granted that sort of let-off. Portuguese giants Porto will meet a Shakhtar Donetsk side torn apart by the escalating military crisis in Ukraine.
Athletic Bilbao and BATE Borisov make up the numbers, both with an equal chance of what must have seemed an unlikely progression before the draw was announced.
It was a very different story in Group F where Barcelona, PSG and Ajax Amsterdam will take turns feasting on poor APOEL Nicosia.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic has another chance to wreak revenge on his old club Ajax, but you have to feel a little sorry for the Dutch champions, who always seem to end up in one of the toughest groups.
- Atletico Madrid
- Real Madrid
- FC Basel
- Ludogorets Razgrad
- Zenit St Petersburg
- Bayer Leverkusen
- Borussia Dortmund
- Bayern Munich
- Man City
- CSKA Moscow
- AS Roma
- Ajax Amsterdam
- APOEL Nicosia
- Schalke 04
- Sporting Lisbon
- Shakhtar Donetsk
- Athletic Bilbao
- BATE Borisov