Arsenal will count their blessings on Tuesday night after a tense encounter in Istanbul that saw their 100% record in playoff qualifiers come to an end. Down to ten men, and with Besiktas pressing hard, the Londoners walked away with a 0-0 draw -- and will be happy enough with that.
Aaron Ramsey was sent off with ten minutes left to play in the match for his second yellow card, and will now miss the return leg in London. Mikel Arteta also limped off during the match, and his status is uncertain for the weekend. But it's Besiktas who are likely to rue the result more. Desperate to snatch a home goal or two ahead of their trip to London -- and never good travellers -- the Turks squandered three great chances.
Arsenal met Tuesday's challenge well, looking focused and organized in the back, and then using Alexis Sanchez to break the pressure with ranging runs up top, Arsenal got a sterling performance out of teen Callum Chambers, the new summer signing from Southampton who has quickly shown that he can play at a high level. Directly pitted against former Chelsea and Newcastle hitman Demba Ba -- who had scored a hat trick in his Besiktas debut -- the youngster looked poised and careful, only once making a mistake on the thick surface.
Ba was a handful, to be sure. Right off the kickoff, he spotted Wojciech Szczesny off his line and tried an audacious chip that the Polish keeper had to scramble to stop. That was but a hint of his power and intent as eight minutes later he forced a truly fine stop off service from Oguzhan Ozyakup. Ba took the cross on the volley and went for the far post but Szczesny was able to leap and claw it out.
Ba would then have the best chance of the half for Besiktas almost on the stroke of the half when he rounded Chambers, turned defender Nacho Monreal inside out -- and then spun his shot into the advertising boards wide left. The shot left manager Slaven Bilic with his head in his hands and Ba pounding the grass.
After the break, Arteta would cough the ball up in midfield under a challenge from Ba, giving Olcay Sahan another wonderful chance that he spurned. Arteta, who would have to come off injured, allowed Ba to free Sahan wide left, but even with time and space, he could pick out the far post. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain would then squander Arsenal's best chance late, when he hit the post after a fine, scything run late.
In the other major match of the day, Napoli were well held by Athletic Bilbao to a 1-1 draw that leaves both teams with all to play for in the return leg in Spain.
The Serie A club should have been on top in three minutes but Marek Hamsik wasted a wide-open header chance after Gonzalo Higuain found him 10 yards out with a cross from the right. Hamsik nodded that one over, then swept a more difficult -- but certainly takeable -- chance past the far post in the fifth minute, a pair of misses the home team would come to rue.
Given that let-off, Athletic slowly ground its way into the match and got their reward just before the interval when Iker Muniain produced a glorious first-time finish from the right side of the box after Oscar de Marcos did all of the spadework with a strong run down the right. He then delivered the cross that Muniain pounced upon.
It took something truly special from Higuain to get Napoli back on level terms. With Bilbao having little trouble containing a poor-passing, sloppy home side, Higuain suddenly changed the picture when he controlled a ball just outside the box, slithered past two defenders, then whipped his shot across his body and across the defense to find the far post. That came in the 68th minute and just two minutes later Napoli should have been on top, but Jose Callejon wasted a golden chance. Put in free on the right, he had time to size up his shot, but instead hit it too quickly and past the near post.
In Denmark, neither manager could have been happy with the gaps at the back in Copenhagen where both teams were profligate in the opening 45 minutes. That said, there were some fine goals as German Bayer Leverkusen grabbed a 3-2 advantage in a wide-open match.
Stefan Kiessling first-timed the opening goal in just five minutes, but the Danes were on top after 13 minutes when Mathias Jorgensen and Daniel Amartey sliced through the porous Leverkusen backline to score off poorly-cleared initial shots. Karim Bellarabi's fine finish got Leverkusen even before Son Heung-min hit the far corner in full stride after receiving the ball in space on the right.
In Salzburg, the Austrians were all over Malmo but found making that dominance concrete a bit of a task, forced to settle for a 2-1 win. Despite hitting the woodwork twice in the first half, the only Red Bull Salzburg goal was a terrific reaction volley by Franz Schiemer after Christoph Leitgeb had hit the near post as he met a corner first-time. Schiemer pounced on the rebound and shot to the far corner. Emil Forsberg grabbed the late consolation for Malmo, a precious away goal which may prove valuable going forward.
Jonathan Soriano, whose free midway through the first half had left the crossbar shaking, finally made it 2-0 in the 54th minute. This time the woodwork actually did Salzburg a favor as his free kick was pushed onto the post by the keeper, but then spun into the net.
Finally, Steaua Bucharest saw Alexandru Chipciu's penalty saved in the first half by keeper Vladislav Stoyanov, but recovered late to win 1-0 thanks to a very late goal from Chipciu.