I don’t know how you feel about omens, but last time we faced Benfica in European competition we drew 1-1 in the away leg only to lose 1-3 in the home tie.
That was in November 1991. Less than six months earlier George Graham’s Arsenal team had celebrated a dominant league title triumph, losing only one game all season.
We were so good that many of us felt that 1991-92 could be the year for us to finally lift the European Cup (for you youngsters, that’s the trophy now known as the Champions League). But it was not to be. Despite scoring our away goal we could not get on top of the Portuguese in the home leg at Highbury and lost in extra time. I was there and it was a miserable night.
People say: ‘history repeats itself.’ I prefer this version: ‘history doesn’t repeat itself, but it sometimes rhymes.’ Let’s hope it’s not too close a rhyme next Thursday night when we play the second leg in our home ground of, er, Athens. (By the way, given the amount of Arsenal supporters from the North London Greek community I think we can look on Athens as a spiritual home fixture).
For the ‘away’ leg Mikel Arteta took the highly unusual step of naming an unchanged team, presumably encouraged greatly by our first half display against Leeds United at the weekend.
But where Saturday’s performance was characterised by clinical finishing, last night’s was all about missed chances. On another evening we would have come out victors by a three or four goal margin. Aubameyang missed a sitter early in the first half and had other half-decent chances. Other players had opportunities but couldn’t convert.
A 1-1 scoreline is not at all bad for an ‘away’ leg in European competition but it still leaves us with plenty to do.
Fortunately, we showed enough attacking verve to give us hope that we won’t see a repeat of 1991. Benfica were extremely well organised and had a superbly drilled back line whose offside trap reminded me of those long-gone George Graham years, but we still managed to carve them open numerous times.
At the other end they barely threatened and their goal came from a very soft penalty. Soft not because I am disputing the decision, but because it was one of those situations where a ball is booted at a player from a mere couple of feet away and hits his arm before he can do anything about it.
I thought our stand-out performers were Smith Rowe, who was a constant thorn in their sound down our left flank; Saka (who added another few million quid to his value with our equaliser); and the Luiz-Gabriel axis, which marshalled the defence very well.
I pick out Saka even though he was kept fairly quiet for large parts of the game. Benfica had clearly studied hours and hours of tape of our young star and worked out a highly sophisticated plan to stop him. It amounted to this instruction to ex-Spud defender Jan Vertonghen: “Jan, every time he gets the ball, kick him.”
Despite the big Belgian being all over him like Rooney on a granny, and despite the usual lack of protection from the ref for the constant fouling, Saka still found ways to influence the game in our favour, including getting the vital away goal.
Aubameyang will be frustrated that he did not add to his recent goal scoring run (five in his last two starts before last night). All you can say is that at least he got into positions where you would normally expect him to find the back of the net.
We will go into the return leg as deserved favourites to progress. Given that this competition is our only chance of silverware (and that the prize of a Champions League place is huge) let’s hope we don’t end up regretting last night’s misses.
Leno – 7
Made one good save, had no chance with the well-taken penalty but was mostly untroubled.
Bellerin – 6.5
Tried to contribute to our right-side attack and made some good surging runs forward, but seemed reluctant to feed the ball inside to Odegaard and at other times was not on the same wavelength as Saka.
Luiz – 7.5
Physically strong, read the game well and was happy to clear it long if Benfica’s high press looked like causing us problems.
Gabriel – 7.5
With his CB partner, gave the Benfica forwards barely a sniff.
Cedric – 7
A very typical Ced performance. Plenty of effort and good work; some wayward passing and crossing. But he got the assist for our goal.
Xhaka – 7
One Xhakatastic moment of madness almost cost us dearly, when he played an idiotic long ball across our penalty area straight to a Benfica forward, but apart from that he maintained his very good recent form. Made one terrific sliding tackle in the box.
Ceballos – 7
I felt Dani slowed us down at times, but I may be being harsh and perhaps the right balls weren’t on for him. Nevertheless he did get us forward well for our equaliser and his work rate and tackling are seldom in doubt.
Saka – 7.5
Got our vital away goal and never gave up trying to make things happen despite the man-marking by Vertonghen. His dribbling skills broke the Benfica defence several times and, with a fraction more composure, he might well have had a second goal to his name.
Odegaard – 7
Looks good whenever he’s on the ball (and when he’s off it). Excellent speed of thought and play. Along with Saka and Smith Rowe, Martin helps speed up our play, which is vital for success at the highest level.
Smith Rowe – 8 (MoTM)
I love watching this lad play. His touch is sublime, he is brave and he is fast (both of foot and of brain). To think how good he is at this young age is to get really excited about our future prospects.
Aubameyang – 6
Should have put us ahead early in the first half. He knows it. He’ll probably score against Man City at the weekend.
Tierney – 7
Great to see Tesco back and for him to get some minutes before facing Man City on Sunday. He looked as good as ever apart from one misplaced cross. The fact that it was such a surprise to see his attempted cross go straight out of play is testament to how good he is.
Martinelli – 6.5
Came on in the 77th minute. His intent was obvious from the start but Benfica had shut up shop by that stage and it was hard to make chances.
Pepe – 6.5
Came on with Martinelli. Had a few decent moments but nothing quite came off for him.
Elneny & Willian – N/A
Came on at the very end for who-knows-what reason.