Istanbul is inhospitable in footballing terms, and it has been so for English teams for a long time. Although Arsenal disproved that notion at this stage last year, their second journey to Turkey in as many years proved much less successful, as the Gunners struggled to find their best form in a 0-0 draw with Besiktas on Tuesday.
Despite keeping a clean sheet in an Ataturk Olympic Stadium that in truth resembled more of a tribal coliseum than a football arena, given the enormous vocal presence by the fans of Slaven Bilic's Black Eagles, Arsenal fans have little to smile about and head back to London knowing that opportunities could have been capitalised upon and that a great deal of hard graft remains if Arsenal are to make the group stages of the Champions League for a 17th consecutive season.
Few players impressed for Arsene Wenger's side, and it's probably fair to say that no one truly excelled on the Bosphorus on Tuesday night.
Defensively, Calum Chambers was in fine form once again, despite a slip in the first-half that allowed Demba Ba a chance to open the scoring—the Senegalese's miss would be one he would rue for the match's remainder.
Fellow newcomer Mathieu Debuchy put in a gutsy showing, displaying his prowess both defensively and offensively. Also on the right side, Alexis Sanchez was perhaps Arsenal's most potent attacking force, as his first-half runs carrying the ball created opportunities and perplexed defenders.
The greatest of those opportunities fell to Olivier Giroud, who despite holding up the play within 10 yards of the goal, failed to capitalise on Alexis drawing defenders away from him, and losing his footing, the Frenchman found his flailing strike smothered by his aggressors.
Alexis was tireless in the first half as he confidently beat his opposite numbers and tried to get Arsenal cooking on gas with dangerous balls into teammates in space; yet rarely did the Chilean find those favours returned. He has shown glimpses of true quality, but his teammates need to respond to that in kind in the coming weeks to get their new colleague truly up and running.
The second half was a much scrappier, ill-tempered affair that saw the Serbian referee Milorad Mazic hand out a slew of cautions, culminating in Aaron Ramsey's first senior red card late in the game and Bilic being sent to the stands after a continuous debate with the officials.
Ramsey was perhaps unlucky to see red for pulling back his Turkish opponents, when in reality there were fouls committed against the English side that went unpunished, or punished with a lessened severity.
To focus on that, though, is only to avoid the onus on Arsenal that they truly failed to show their best form in Turkey.
Ramsey was far from the dynamic presence he has made himself a reputation of being, the same presence he was against Crystal Palace on Saturday. Similarly, Santi Cazorla made no real impact on the game, and neither really did Olivier Giroud.
Additionally, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain perhaps ought to have been introduced earlier, considering the verve and vitality he brought to the proceedings in his brief cameo, especially his shot that drew a fine save from Besiktas stopper Tolga Zengin.
That the first substitution on the 50-minute mark was necessitated by injury and wasn't followed up until Oxlade-Chamberlain's introduction with little more than 15 minutes to play should draw some inquest from Arsenal's faithful. The Gunners had options on the bench, options like Oxlade-Chamberlain who offered a different attacking approach to the measured methods they were unsuccessfully employing. To not use those options provides a poor reflection on Wenger's tactical mastery.
However, this was Arsenal's second competitive game in four days, and much of the squad that faced Palace at the Emirates were retained for this trip to Istanbul, including Laurent Koscielny, whose fitness was a question mark before the match. Tiredness and a lack of sharpness was an almost inevitable consequence of this; however, these fixtures, in these testing conditions, are no alien concept to Arsenal and Wenger.
Because of Arsenal's failure to capitalise on their chances and not craft goals, or even any true moments of quality, they'll face a "win or go home" scenario when Bilic and Besiktas visit the Emirates Stadium on Wednesday. So much of their season hinges on whether Arsenal can pick up the win.
Will the Gunners be able to attract more top-quality additions should they fail to make the group stages of the Champions League? Will the rest of their season suffer without the most prestigious title in European football to play for?
Those are two questions Wenger will have to answer should his team not complete the objective set out for them. He won't want to—so he must ensure his team gives a better performance in the return leg.
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