With their current run of Premier League games looking to be a daunting and worrying run, it seems as though Arsenal may be resigned to putting all of their eggs into the Europa League basket.
While last season proved to be a disappointment following the team’s humiliating 1-2 defeat at home to Olympiacos, Mikel Arteta would be hoping for a better un in the competition this season.
Following Rob Holding’s concussion in the defeat to Manchester City, the England defender was unable to make the trip to Athens for the second-leg of Arsenal’s crucial Round of 32 tie against Benfica. So Mikel Arteta made one or two changes, Holding, Pablo Marí, Mohamed Elneny and Nicolas Pépé were all dropped for David Luiz, Gabriel Magalhães, Dani Ceballos and Emile Smith Rowe respectively.
Arsenal entered the match knowing that a scoreless draw would be more than enough to secure them safe passage into the Round of 16, but any Arsenal fan knew that it would be a fool’s errand not to try and score at least one if the North London club were serious about making it through to the next round of the competition.
Arsenal started brightly, with plenty of possession and a lot of chances being created, none more so than by Martin Ødegaard, who drifted through the defensive line easily and was able to pick out a number of sumptuous passes for his teammates.
Despite the Norwegian’s exquisite passing and dribbling, it was Bukayo Saka who found the creative breakthrough from out of nowhere. The talented teen made his way through the middle of the park and then played a delightful, Mesut Özil-esque pass into the path of captain Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang who placed the ball into the far corner of the net with a trademark Aubameyang chip.
It was a glorious start and was surely a sign of more to come. How wrong that proved to be.
Struggling to contain one of Benfica’s rare attacks, Dani Ceballos inadvertently gave away a free-kick in an area just promising enough to cause Arsenal some real issues and, sure enough, up stepped Diogo Gonçalves, who fired an absolute screamer of a free-kick into the back of the net to draw the visitors level.
Half-time beckoned in an Arsenal side that seemed stunned by the setback. How could this be? They had been in total control for near enough 45 minutes and Benfica had barely even troubled them and yet, much like the week before, Arsenal found themselves inexplicably on level terms.
The second-half proved to be even more head-scratchingly strange. Arsenal found themselves ahead for five glorious seconds as Ødegaard’s sumptuous ball through found Aubameyang who rattled the back of the net in the same way he had in the first-half with a delicious chip over the grounded goalkeeper, but VAR deemed that Aubameyang had strayed offside.
A corner from Ødegaard was confidently caught by Alexio Leite, who hit a clearance as straight as an arrow down the middle of the pitch which fell fairly easily towards Dani Ceballos who attempted to head the ball behind him to Bernd Leno, only for the midfielder to sell his companion short as the ball trickled into the path of Rafa Silva who bore down on goal, rounded a frustrated Bernd Leno and outstripped the advances of Héctor Bellerín and Kieran Tierney and fired home into an empty net from close range for Arsenal to find themselves a goal down.
In fairness, it didn’t take long for Arsenal to reply, a good run from substitute Willian saw him able to cut back for left-back Kieran Tierney, who steadied himself, took aim and fired an arrow straight into the bottom far corner to get Arsenal back on level terms on the night, although still trialing by the away goals rule.
Arsenal began to dig deep to find a goal, but try as they might, they seemed unable to really test Benfica further until Bukayo Saka’s tricky feet in the box gave him room to aim and he delivered a dream of a cross to the back post for an onrushing Aubameyang to head home from close-range and give Arsenal a well-deserved lead in dramatic fashion.
Even the subsequent VAR check could do little to tarnish the scenes of jubilation from the players and that feeling was only extended when the final whistle blew a few minutes later.
It was a close run thing, Arsenal qualified by the skin of their teeth and it seemed as though Arsenal’s biggest issues once again were their own.
Héctor Bellerín had spoken in the wake of the defeat to Manchester City about how no team is beating Arsenal, but rather that Arsenal are beating themselves, something that seemed to be echoed in the performance on Thursday night.
Benfica never really looked to be at the races, but three individual errors over the course of the two legs gifted them three goals, with Arsenal needing their usual big hitters to bail them out.
It was an outstanding performance however from young Bukayo Saka. The youngster broke into the team last season and now looks to have usurped Aubameyang and Leno as the first name on the teamsheet. The youngster was everywhere and Benfica seemed unable to get the ball from him, it was as though the ball was velcroed to his feet and his two assists seemed to echo the abilities of the now departed Mesut Özil at his very best.
Another strong performance from Kieran Tierney will have certainly helped as well. The Scottish left-back has endured hell with his injury woes at Arsenal, however, his commitment and abilities can never be questioned, even if his appearance stats can. His goal last night had an air of “I’ll do it myself then” about it and the finish was as emphatic as his celebration afterwards.
Arsenal must now focus on the Premier League, with a trip to the King Power Stadium next up.
1.) Bernd Leno
2.) Héctor Bellerín (Lacazette 78’)
23.) David Luiz
6.) Gabriel Magalhães
3.) Kieran Tierney
34.) Granit Xhaka
8.) Dani Ceballos (Partey 63’)
32.) Emile Smith Rowe (Willian 63’)
11.) Martin Ødegaard (Elneny 90’)
7.) Bukayo Saka (Chambers 90’)
14.) Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (c)
33.) Maty Ryan
44.) Karl Jakob Hein
22.) Pablo Marí
21.) Calum Chambers
17.) Cédric Soares
25.) Mohamed Elneny
18.) Thomas Partey
19.) Nicolas Pépé
35.) Gabriel Martinelli
30.) Eddie Nketiah
9.) Alexandre Lacazette
77.) Alexio Leite
4.) Lucas Veríssimo
30.) Nicolas Otamendi
5.) Jan Vertonghen
17.) Diogo Gonçalves
21.) Pizzi (c) (Everton 58’)
28.) Julian Weigl (Waldschmidt 90’)
49.) Adel Taarabt (Appelt Pires 58’)
3.) Álex Grimaldo (Tavares 85’)
27.) Ferreira Silva
14.) Haris Seferović (Núñez 57’)
1.) Mile Svilar
99.) Odyesseas Vlachodimos
71.) Nuno Tavares
8.) Appelt Pires
27.) Ferreira Silva
7.) Everton Soares
88.) Gonçalo Ramos
9.) Darwin Núñez