Poor finishing let us down in the first leg of our Europa League ‘Round of 32’ tie against Benfica in Rome.
We had the chances to be comfortably home and hosed but didn’t take them. We gave away a soft penalty and then equalised through Bukayo Saka (with what could be an important ‘away’ goal) but in the end had to settle for a point.
If we are a bit more clinical tonight it should be relatively straightforward to qualify, but you always have to beware of the word ‘should’ when it comes to European football.
We should have beaten Benfica in the return leg at Highbury in the European Cup in 1991, but we lost 1-3. We should have won the UEFA Cup final against Galatasaray in Copenhagen in 2000 but we didn’t. In general, given the quality of the teams we had in the George Graham and Arsene Wenger years, we should have more European silverware in our trophy cabinet.
I’m not trying to be pessimistic about tonight: it’s just a reminder that succeeding in Euro footy has never been easy.
We’re playing our ‘home’ leg in Athens as the Covid strangeness rumbles on, but the absence of crowds makes the whole idea of ‘home’ or ‘away’ redundant. However, the one way it could come into play is if the tie goes to extra time, in which case any Benfica goal in the added half hour would still count double, as an ‘away’ goal.
I have never thought that was a particularly fair law. The team that plays at home in the second leg gets 90 minutes (in the first leg) to score an away goal; the team that plays away in the second leg gets a potential 120 minutes to score an away goal. Anyway, let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.
Team news is that Holding is unavailable because of concussion protocols and our only other doubt is Thomas Partey, but Mikel Arteta was making generally positive noises yesterday about the possibility of his being able to play.
In yesterday’s Post I wrote that I hope El Patron reunites the Saka-Laca-Smith Rowe unit that has produced some of our best football this season. It would require Smith Rowe being played more centrally rather than being shunted out wide to make way for Martin Odegaard.
The Norwegian looks to have the potential to be a class act, but I would prefer to see ESR who, to this observer at least, has emerged as one of our most effective players since getting his chance in the win against Chelsea.
Benfica never really troubled our defence in the first leg but they need to score at least once tonight so I’m sure we will have more defending to do in this game. Let’s hope we stay focused at the back and avoid the self-inflicted wounds that we’re so familiar with.
Here’s the team I expect to start:
Bellerin – Luiz – Gabriel – Tierney
Xhaka – Partey
Saka – Odegaard – Smith Row
The team I would prefer to see start would include the same back five as above (Tierney looked knackered in the Manchester City game on Sunday but hopefully his match fitness is returning) and the same pair at the base of midfield, but my attacking line-up would be:
Saka – Smith Rowe – Aubameyang
Let’s hope whatever team we put out does the job and gets us into the Round of 16. At that point we’re only seven games away from a trophy and a berth in the Champions League next year…
Come On You Gunners!