While Arsenal’s Premier League form has been something of a rollercoaster ride for all involved, their Europa League form has been a showing of potential favourites.
Finishing top of their group with maximum points, twenty goals scored and only five conceded, has given Arsenal fans hope that this season could indeed be their year.
Starting with the same eleven that romped to a 4-2 victory over Leeds United on Sunday, Mikel Arteta sent a clear message that Arsenal consider this competition among their top priorities.
If that attitude was hinted at with his selection, it was reflected too in the performance of the team.
Arsenal started well, creating chances and keeping Benfica at bay. Benfica struggled to contain the midfield, which allowed Arsenal to push forward more often. Following his side’s defeat on Sunday, Marcelo Bielsa simply stated that his team failed to keep Granit Xhaka and Dani Ceballos quiet, something Benfica failed to do as well.
Xhaka was not the main man that Benfica needed to worry about, it was Ceballos, who was carving open the Portuguese side with indifferent ease, his passes reaching Héctor Bellerín and Bukayo Saka far too easily and it was from these positions that Arsenal were at their most dangerous.
Arsenal were carving open Benfica with relative ease and it seemed certain that they would take a well-deserved lead, when Bellerín laid a beautiful cross along the floor of the six-yard area to fall to the feet of the in-form Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, fresh off his first-ever Premier League hat-trick, only for the talismanic striker to miss. It seemed a cert that he would score and it also seemed easier to score it than miss it.
Arsenal had plenty of other chances, but the main issue seemed to rise from the forward line’s seeming inability to remain onside. Bukayo Saka, Aubameyang and Emile Smith Rowe were the guilty parties more often than most and while seemed a little bit harsh, it killed a lot of the momentum going forward against a somewhat hapless Benfica defence.
It was remarkable that Arsenal reached half-time at 0-0 and it seemed as though Benfica had been hoping for such an event, as they implemented the attacking part of their gameplan in the second-half. Though Benfica rarely troubled Arsenal beyond a decent save from Bernd Leno, they inadvertently found themselves on the receiving end of a very harsh penalty decision.
Emile Smith Rowe’s handball in the box was verified by VAR, but the decision seemed to penalise Smith Rowe for something he had little-to-no control over. A stray ricochet from his chest onto his arm meant that Benfica were given the chance to take the lead, which they dutifully did as Pizzi’s effort creeped past Leno to give Benfica an early advantage.
It didn’t take long for Arsenal to respond however. Though not a terrific sign that Arsenal only really clicked into gear in the final-third when they had conceded, it was a very well worked goal.
A brilliant pass from the excellent Martin Ødegaard found Cédric Soares unmarked in the box, who squared it for Saka, who promptly finished to give Arsenal an equaliser and an all-important away goal.
From there, Arsenal had one or two other chances, but otherwise failed to create much more and it was with a dissapointing air that the final whistle sounded.
Despite conceding a penalty, it was a sound defensive performance from Arsenal, especially from Brazilian duo David Luiz and Gabriel Magalhães, who managed to keep most of Benfica’s main attempts at bay fairly easily. Their long balls over the top were often the main source of creativity in the team for a while, allowing Smith Rowe and Saka to build up on the flanks, while Ødegaard and Aubameyang crowded the box.
The performance of Martin Ødegaard will surely turn some heads too. The Norwegian youngster was unlucky not to impact the game more, as Arsenal seemed to usurp him whenever they were going forward, not least in the form of Bellerín, who seemed unwilling to pass to the midfielder, despite the acres of space for him to run into and the excellent runs he had made.
Nevertheless, when he was on the ball, he looked every bit the exciting creative talisman that Arsenal have so craved. His passes were deftly woven, perfectly weighted and easy for the attacker to take in their stride and he seemed totally at ease when dribbling at Benfica’s rather error-prone defence. Though it will likely be said until everyone is sick of it, there was a touch of Mesut Özil about Ødegaard and the comparisons between the two are far beyond the fact that they share the same initials and both came to Arsenal from a Real Madrid side that considered them surplus to requirements.
A lack of sharpness in the final-third (not least from Aubameyang), is all that stood between Arsenal and a potential thrashing, but an away goal is certainly an important take-home as Arsenal leave their COVID-enforced away leg in Rome, to take on Manchester City on Sunday, followed by the return leg in Athens; Mikel Arteta will be hoping for a more exciting attacking display from his side in both matches.
1.) Bernd Leno
2.) Héctor Bellerín
23.) David Luiz
6.) Gabriel Magalhães
17.) Cédric Soares (Tierney 64’)
34.) Granit Xhaka
8.) Dani Ceballos (Elneny 90’)
32.) Emile Smith Rowe (Martinelli 77’)
11.) Martin Ødegaard (Willian 90’)
7.) Bukayo Saka
14.) Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (c) (Pépé 77’)
33.) Maty Ryan
44.) Karl Jakob Hein
16.) Rob Holding
22.) Pablo Marí
21.) Calum Chambers
3.) Kieran Tierney
25.) Mohamed Elneny
19.) Nicolas Pépé
35.) Gabriel Martinelli
30.) Eddie Nketiah
9.) Alexandre Lacazette
77.) Alexio Leite
4.) Lucas Veríssimo (Chiquinho 85’)
30.) Nicolas Otamendi
5.) Jan Vertonghen
17.) Diogo Gonçalves
21.) Pizzi (c) (Everton Soares 64′)
28.) Julian Weigl
49.) Adel Taarabt (Pires 77′)
3.) Álex Grimaldo
10.) Luca Waldschmidt (Silva 45’)
9.) Darwin Núñez (Seferovic 64’)
1.) Mile Svilar
99.) Odyesseas Vlachodimos
82.) Fonseca Ferriera
71.) Nuno Tavares
8.) Appelt Pires
27.) Ferreira Silva
82.) Fonseca Ferriera
7.) Everton Soares
14.) Haris Seferović