Paris: A goal by Chilean star Alexis Sanchez saw Arsenal scrape into the Champions League group stages as they beat a plucky Turkish outfit Besiktas 1-0 in their play-off second leg clash for a 1-0 aggregate victory.
Arsene Wenger’s side managed to hold on despite being reduced to 10 men — like the first leg when Aaron Ramsey was red-carded — after Mathieu Debuchy was sent off for a second bookable offence in the second-half yesterday.
“We produced the performance we wanted — on the tactical side, on the technical side, and on the mental side,” said Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger, who may still have to sign a striker as Frenchman Olivier Giroud will be out for up to four months after undergoing surgery on a broken tibia.
“We were at the level that was requested tonight against a good team, but we couldn’t finish the game off and that made it nervous in the last 10 minutes when we were down to 10 men.”
His Besiktas counterpart, the former Croatia national handler Slaven Bilic will have to content himself with the Europa League.
“Of course we are gutted, because we played good in both games and are close to qualifying for the Champions League against great opponents,” Bilic told Sky Sports.
“Those couple of chances we had to score, but we didn’t. Congratulations to Arsenal. They had the experience and quality up front when needed.”
While Arsenal have regularly graced the group stages, and indeed the knock out phase, Spanish side Athletic Bilbao will experience something they haven’t done in 16 years as a come from behind 3-1 win over Italian opponents Napoli saw them to a 4-2 aggregate win.
A double by Aritz Aduriz — aided by some woeful Napoli defending — and Ibai Gomez saw the hosts to victory after Slovakian Marek Hamsik had given the visitors the lead early in the second-half.
It ended the hopes of Napoli’s Spanish boss Rafael Benitez of adding another Champions League title to the one he won with Liverpool in 2005 and leaves only two Italian representatives in the competition, champions Juventus and runners-up Roma.
Bilbao’s victory highlights how the balance of power in European club football has shifted as Italy’s strength has waned.
There will be four Spanish sides in the group stages — holders Real Madrid, beaten finalists Atletico Madrid and Barcelona being the others.
Hamsik, a key player for Napoli since 2007, refused to overstate the impact of the loss but was furious at the manner in which they had conceded the goals.
“No, it is not a tragedy, but it hurts, the players like the club wanted to play in the Champions League, and we will miss not being in it, but we have to raise our heads,” said the 27-year-old.
“I saw the footage of the goals, it is really silly to concede goals like that, but we made errors and we weren’t able to deal well enough with their counter-attacks.”
Sweden’s Malmo, beaten in the 1979 final by Nottingham Forest, and German outfit Bayer Leverkusen eased through, the latter also ensuring Germany has four clubs in the draw.
But Bulgarian side Ludogorets Razgrad needed a shootout to earn their place among the big boys, beating Steaua Bucharest 5-4 on penalties.
While Ludogorets are likely to be cannon fodder in the group stage they will also earn a lot of money by reaching that stage and they along with the others will learn who they will face in the draw in Monaco on Thursday.