Of all the football capitals of Europe, Istanbul has got to be one of the most daunting and formidable cities for continental teams to visit. But Arsenal went into the lions' den tonight and came out with a 3-0 victory against a thoroughly lacklustre Fenerbahce side.
Goals from Kieran Gibbs, Aaron Ramsey and a penalty from Olivier Giroud sealed an almost unassailable lead in the first leg of the Gunners' UEFA Champions League qualifying playoff. With three away goals to their name, Arsenal will just need to keep their Turkish visitors to three goals or less when Fenerbahce come to the Emirates Stadium in just six days' time.
Despite Fenerbahce's non-showing, Arsenal went above and beyond what was required of them at the Sukru Saracoglu Stadium tonight, and Arsene Wenger's men can rightfully be chuffed with themselves heading into the second leg.
Here are a few key talking points from the Gunners' triumph in Turkey tonight.
Starting from the back, a clean sheet for a depleted Arsenal defensive unit—especially after the horror show of the weekend—represents a job very well done.
Wojciech Szczesny was virtually untroubled after 45 minutes and responded with style and solidity to forays from Moussa Sow and Emmanuel Emenike in the second half. That's without even mentioning the Pole's back four.
With Laurent Koscielny plucked from them just after the half-hour mark due to a vicious high foot from Pierre Webo (h/t B/R's Will Tidey) and with Bacary Sagna forced to deputise at centre-back, the slapdash back four were largely excellent in Istanbul, evidenced by the clean sheet.
Although Koscielny's injury is worrisome, there are some encouraging signs for Gunners fans, especially in the form of the performances of Szczesny and Kieran Gibbs, who capped his night with a rare goal.
Arsenal went in at halftime level and ended the tie as comfortable 3-0 victors. That largely tells the tale of the match, as that old adage—the "game of two halves"—reared its ugly head in stubbornness and relevance once more.
The Gunners played some lovely, patient football in the first 45 minutes, but crucially, that final strike or incisive pass was notably absent. Too often in the first half, Giroud was left on an island in the 18-yard box, surrounded by hostiles in navy blue and yellow with no chance of latching onto a cross.
Still, there were facets throughout tonight's game that were hugely improved from the weekend's game vs. Aston Villa. Making fewer mistakes on the ball, the absence of Saturday afternoon's clumsiness and poor judgment was apparent, replaced by a calmer, controlled possession game we are far more used to seeing from the men in red and white.
Arsenal, as we are used to, dictated the tempo throughout. Aaron Ramsey, in particular, was outstanding (more on the Welshman later).
The trick now is to replicate that form and re-introduce those characteristics of play throughout 90 minutes, both when the Gunners cross London town to Craven Cottage on Saturday and indeed beyond.
Instrumental in Arsenal's opening goal with a sublime pass to let in Theo Walcott, and the sole architect of the Gunners' second (despite some Heurelho Gomes-style goalkeeping from the host's keeper, Volkan Demirel), Aaron Ramsey put in a man-of-the-match performance in Istanbul tonight.
From the get-go, he looked lively, with slick passing and dependable strength and nous from the comfort of midfield. It was after the break that he especially shined, not just because of his part in the two goals but of how he put himself about in Mikel Arteta's absence.
And with the Spaniard expected to be out for at least another month, Gunners fans can rest assured in the knowledge that Ramsey can fill the sizeable void left by Arteta.
In the greater scheme of things, performances like this will only bolster Ramsey as he attempts to improve—on this evidence, this season could be about to bring some of the best work we have yet seen from Ramsey. Confidence-building stuff for the Welshman.
In the end of it all, you have to realise a few crucial facts about tonight's game.
Fenerbahce were largely poor—often woeful, in fact—represented by none other than former Liverpool and Chelsea midfielder Raul Meireles, who was a ghost, a shadow of his Premier League self in tonight's game.
Not only that, but injury scares for Jack Wilshere, Wojciech Szczesny and especially Laurent Koscielny meant for some uncomfortable gut rumblings and notions about the already criticised depth of Arsenal's squad. On Twitter, my B/R colleague Sam Westmoreland summarised it perfectly:
This match perfectly sums up why Wenger HAS to make moves. Everything there but defensive depth and attacking edge. Needs to be fixed.— Sam Westmoreland (@westmorelandsam) August 21, 2013
A 3-0 win, as confidence-boosting as it should be even against a lacklustre Fenerbace side, does not hide the fact that Arsenal's squad is thin at best.
The fact that Sagna had to move inside to cover for Koscielny, to fit Carl Jenkinson into the squad, is starkly revealing—despite the fact that Sagna quietly had an excellent game, much unlike his showing over the weekend.
The squad is in need of bolstering, and even if the midfield didn't show it tonight, moves need to be made and very soon. Maybe goalkeeper isn't a need as glaringly obvious as many thought, but a central defender, a defensive midfielder and a new attacking option would all be welcomed to the Emirates with the most open of arms.
However, for tonight, Arsenal fans should celebrate. Once again, a berth into the Champions League group stages under Arsene Wenger beckons—and for that, we should all breathe a collective sigh of relief.
What did you make of tonight's game? Join the discussion—drop me a comment below, or find me on Twitter: @callumlarr.