Arsenal head for the home leg of their Champions League play-off against Besiktas with their hopes intact after surviving the test of a raucous Istanbul crowd and hugely-energised opponents to leave Turkey with a goalless draw.
In the first leg of the play-off, Arsenal failed to score the all-important away goal but were relieved to have escaped from Istanbul with a 0-0 scoreline and still have every hope they will qualify in the home leg for the group stages.
However, the only sour note was they ended the match with 10 men as key Welsh midfielder Aaron Ramsey was sent off 10 minutes from time.
Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger acknowledged that his side’s goalless draw was a fair result for a “difficult” game but blasted the performance of the referee.
“I think not the first, not the second yellow card was deserved for Ramsey,” Wenger told reporters.
“When you see some of the fouls committed and you go home with a red card for Ramsey it is somewhat unbelievable.”
Wenger – whose 100 per cent win record in Champions League play-off matches came to an end after 12 wins in 12 – described the game as a “difficult match played at a high pace” and praised the opposition for playing at “100 per cent”.
“Maybe a draw is a fair result as both teams had chances to win the game.”
On the return leg in London, he said: “We know that Besiktas is a good team, we know the game will be tight, but the task is clear.”
The prospect of entry into the lucrative group stages of the Champions League dynamised Besiktas, who came third in the Turkish league last season under Croatian manager Slaven Bilic.
Helped by the noisy, partisan home crowd, Besiktas caused the London side trouble from the start with new signing Demba Ba a potent threat.
Everything was at stake for Arsenal who came into the game with a 100 per cent record in Champions League play-offs, having played 12 and won 12.
For Wenger, failing to make the group stage of Europe’s elite club competition for a 17th consecutive campaign would be nothing short of a disaster.
Wenger had said he was tempted to field German World Cup-winning trio Mesut Ozil, Per Mertesacker and Lukas Podolski for the first time this season given the potential difficulty of the tie but in the end opted to leave them out.
The home fans treated Arsenal to the traditional – and notorious – Istanbul hostile welcome for foreign sides of deafening whistling, smoke flares and taunts as the handful of Arsenal fans, who made the trip, looked on mutely.
Besiktas had no problem creating chances but failed to land the clinical blow in front of goal that could have left Arsenal’s early season in tatters.
But in a testy second half that lacked the sparkle of the first, Arsenal could also make no headway past the solid Besiktas defence and the Istanbul side scrambled to thwart English attacks before heading out on the break.
Bilic was himself sent to the stands in the dying minutes for protesting at a failure to penalise an Arsenal player for a foul on one of his team but expressed satisfaction with the result.
“It was a great game of football; it was not a dull 0-0. I am really proud of my players, they stuck to their plan,” Bilic said.
“From my point of view we were closer to beating them.”
Bilic expressed optimism that his side could spring an upset on the return leg in London.
“If we play like this we are capable to creating chances against any team,” he said.
“We are going to go to London not just for shopping in Harrods but we are going to go to fulfil – some would say our dream – I would say our plan.”
Bilic said he had apologised to the referee at the end of the game for the argument that saw him sent off but insisted he had not misbehaved.
“It was not swearing, I was just unhappy and after the game I apologised. Maybe I over-reacted, my mistake, nothing serious happened,” he said.
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