It was a rollercoaster ride in Athens last night as Arsenal came from behind to book a berth in the last 16 of the Europa League.
The game was scrappy in both meanings of the word (we had scraps of good play and of bad without there being any real flow to our football; but we kept scrapping to the end to earn the win).
It was the combination of Bukayo Saka and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang that made the difference for us, with a big slice of assistance from Kieran Tierney in between. SakaYang linked up for our opener and for the decisive goal in the 87th minute; KT dragged us back into it when it was beginning to look like we’d left ourselves too big a mountain to climb.
The draw for the next round is today – it would be nice if it was kind to us.
When Mikel Arteta announced his starting line-up last night I had some reservations. The back five seemed automatic choices given the concussion absence of Holding. Partey was available but presumably there was a desire not to rush him back to action too quickly so he was on the bench, with Ceballos and Xhaka anchoring midfield. So far so good.
But in the attacking half I was disappointed that Smith Rowe had been shunted out to the left wing to make way for Odegaard in the middle, and also that Aubameyang was starting as central striker ahead of Lacazette (I would have put Odegaard on the bench, ESR in the middle, Auba on the left and Laca up front). Saka, our best player by far this season, was on the right.
Benfica knew they needed an ‘away’ goal and could not just sit back. I thought they looked a lot more purposeful and progressive in the early stages than they did in the first leg. As for Arsenal, we played good football at times but were also extremely careless with the ball, misplacing simple passes and losing possession far too easily.
But it was Arsenal who took the lead in the 21st minute when a lovely pass from Saka invited Captain Auba into the opposition penalty area for a trademark finish – a little dink over the out-rushing ‘keeper.
Two-one up on aggregate, all we needed to do now was not make any stupid mistakes and try and get a third on the break. Well, this being Arsenal, you know how the script went from there.
We’ve had a weakness for conceding just before (or just after) half time this season and, sure enough, we shot ourselves in the foot in the 43rd minute. Ceballos stuck out a leg to foul a Benfica player just outside our box. There had been no need to make the foul as the player was going sideways and there was plenty of cover behind Ceballos.
Goncalves stepped up and placed a beautiful free kick past Leno into the top corner. Now it was 2-2 and our away goal advantage had been nullified.
In the second half we continued to have good spells, but also some very sloppy periods of play. Luiz and Gabriel were uncharacteristically indecisive at the back and both seemed to struggle with physical duels, which was a real surprise (normally they are both very solid when jockeying with opponents to get their head on a high ball, but not so last night).
Then came the 61st minute, and another error from Ceballos – this one much more egregious than his first. The Benfica goalie punted a long ball forward; Dani was in a deep central midfield position and, for reasons known only to himself, he decided to perform a headed back-flick, presumably intended for Leno. Unfortunately the Benfica striker Silva was in the vicinity and pounced on the ball, rounding Leno for a tap-in.
Suddenly we needed TWO goals to qualify (a draw would not be enough to take us to extra time and penalties because of the away goals rule).
I had my head in my hands and was thinking back to the first leg, when we should have put the tie beyond doubt but our bad finishing let us down.
El Patron made immediate changes, bringing on Partey and Willian for Smith Rowe and Ceballos and, luckily, we didn’t have to wait too long to get a foothold back in the game. Willian fed the ball to Tierney on the left as he attacked the penalty area. The Scot took a couple of great touches and slammed the ball home in the bottom corner.
We still had 23 minutes and any stoppage time to get a decisive goal – but could we do it? Following Tierney’s strike we had a very good spell of dominance and threatened the Benfica goal continuously. However, with about 10 minutes to go we seemed to be running out of steam and our opponents were playing some quality possession football to protect their winning position in the tie. For several minutes we couldn’t even get a touch of the ball.
We had added Lacazette to our attacking options by this stage (on for Bellerin), but it was SakaYang that eventually made the telling contribution.
We finally managed to get hold of the ball and Saka got into the Benfica area on the right hand side and put a perfect cross over to the back post for Aubameyang to head in unchallenged. There was a brief period of worry while we waited for VAR, but the goal stood.
Benfica went for it in the final minutes and gave us a fright with one moment when they hit the post, but it was from an obviously offside position and would not have counted anyway.
When the final whistle blew I can’t have been the only Arsenal supporter to breathe a huge sigh of relief. Our season is still alive; we showed character to come from behind and claw back two goals; on to the next round. Phew.
Leno – 6.5
No chance for the two goals and did nothing wrong otherwise.
Bellerin – 6.5
A decent game from Hector. He contributed to our attacking on many occasions even if things didn’t come off too often.
Luiz – 5
Not as solid as usual.
Gabriel – 5
Rare to see him muscled off the ball, but it happened several times last night and some of his passing was poor.
Tierney – 7.5
Made a huge contribution with his goal and worked tirelessly. I also get the feeling he’s not fully back to his best since his injury, so it’s exciting to think there’s more to come.
Xhaka – 6.5
Reasonably solid and secure. Perhaps could have done more in the attacking third.
Ceballos – 4
Go and sit on the naughty step, Dani. Two errors that cost two goals is not good enough. No surprise that he was yanked immediately after the second blunder.
Saka – 8.5 (MoTM)
Running out of superlatives for this kid now. Without Saka last night, we do not progress to the next round.
Odegaard – 6
The loanee did OK and showed some nice touches and nice passes here and there, but he struggled to influence the game and does not seem to be on the same wavelength with Saka the way Smith Rowe is.
Smith Rowe – 6
Looked a bit lost and less involved than usual out on the left wing.
Aubameyang – 8.5
When Auba is finishing with this degree of confidence and skill he is world class. Two beautifully taken goals, plus an equally well taken third that was ruled out for a fractional offside. The man is definitely back and that could be huge for the remainder of our season.
Willian – 6
Did what he usually does (picks up the ball in a wide left position, occasionally runs down the line, but always turns back and passes backwards). However, he did pass the ball to Tierney for the Scotsman’s goal so that’s technically an assist even if really it was a goal down to individual effort from KT. Nevertheless, hopefully it will improve the Brazilian’s confidence.
Partey – 6.5
Got involved quickly and looked sharp.
Lacazette – 6.5
On in the 78th minute, he helped stretch the Benfica defence and chased them down consistently when they had possession.
Chambers – N/A
On in the 90th minute to help see the game ut.
Elneny – N/A
On in the 90th minute to help see the game out.
I felt sorry for Ceballos – he did have a torrid game. I still think he would be much more valuable to our squad than Odegaard. I don’t see what Odegaard is adding to the table. He is definitely pushing ESR wide and keeping both Laca and Pepe out of the team but he is slowing the game mostly and does not make runs like ESR nor Pepe…so for me, he needs to be sent back to Real while Ceba could be kept, especially since we are going to get rid of both Torreira and Guendouzi.
MOTM: Saka and Auba
Nearly MOTM: Tierney
THANKS FOR KEEPING THE BLOG ALIVE ROCKY
Seriously wish mikel would stop prioritizing odegard over pepe and aubameyang
We are struggling for goals and the only goals scorers on the pitch are aubameyang and saka
I disagree rc surely we can do better than ceballos bad player but is he much better than the likes of willock
I say send him back and have willock and elneny as backup to partey and xhaka or even get a b2b one of the signing for the summer
Ramsey would have been so good that role grr
That game gave me a pounding headache for the rest of the evening.
Saka was wonderful and PEA did what he is paid to do. Tierney showed real fighting spirit.
Ceballos needs a boot up the hole. That was a totally unprofessional performance and could have cost us dearly. Although it was a fantastic free kick he pretty much got assists for both of Benfica’s goals. I’m struggling to remember another shot they had on target.
Shoehorning Odegaard into the team isn’t working. He moves the ball around without producing many chances. ESR needs to come back central to influence the game. I’m not sure why Arteta has changed an attcking formation that was working very well.
Tottenham in the draw?
The draw’s at 12.00 our time.
I really hope we don’t get one of the English clubs (or Rangers).
At least Leicester are out so that leaves Man U and the Spuds to avoid. Hopefully they’ll draw each other.
Last night game was a game to remember.It really showed that this team still has the tenacity to fight back in spite of all odds. Auba and Saka really made things happen while Tieney is arguably the best left back in the premier league at the moment I hope he stays fit.On Ceballos mistakes, no comments. Arteta knows what to do.I hope we get a fair draw today but knowing our bad luck, they will probably hand us Tottenham or even Man utd.COYG. on a good day we, can beat any team left in this competition.
” extremely careless with the ball, displacing simple passes, and losing possession far too easily”.
The crux………and given that Benfica were going forward looking for a goal, the requirement was dynamic speed of pass forward splitting the lines. We dont seem to learn, and yet I dont think it is rocket science. As stated yesterday, feeling sorry for E S-R and hoping both he and Martinelli are not to be wasted for a ha’pence of Willian and for that matter BOdegaard!!
Thanks Rocky, I watched a lot of the game from behind the sofa. It seems that if one of our players makes a mistake he is more than likely to make another. Maybe they’re trying too hard to recompense.
I agree that ESR should get the central role and probably Lacca is a better option than Ode to make the triangles work. There is no doubt our future lies in rapid intricate forward passes to unlock defences and having full backs who are brave and get behind the opposition’s defence.
Tierney is my MOTM because his goal and the way he collected the ball and clenched his fist gave the players belief. Saka and Auba are great players but KT is a leader of men.
Olympiacos. …. I’ll take that
Totts get an easy draw … typical
Chance for revenge of all revenge. Played 10 time in Europe. Won five lost five.
We will need to beat better teams than Olympiacos if we’re going to win the tournament LBG
Last year’s second leg was one of the most disappointing games I have ever attended at the Emirates, Rasp.
Of course, bigger, better teams left in. Worryingly, the type of team we tend not to take seriously enough. Score the goals in away leg, for a change.
Having just played in Athens, it will probably emerge that we have to play Olimpiacos in Moscow.
I don’t think Zagreb will be a pushover for the Tinies.
We can hope, anyway.
Sokratis!! Let’s hope he doesn’t have a blinder!!
Oh he will Sue, he will.
Can someone explain the home away rule in regards to covid
Cause I say Leicester play home yesterday so I assuming London clubs can’t play home cause of covid?
And Burma and the French guy forgot his name
Imagine the guy who score the Fk that was his first goal for the season grrr
Willian instead of pepe though
Olympiakos it is…time for revenge
Bonne après-midi Rocky, (starting to get you and RC mixed up) 🙃
Excellent Post-Match report and ratings.
I noted that you had a mistook in the ratings, as you gave Belli a mark of 6.5, but perhaps that was a little inaccurate, because he never gives up — on the first occasion he tried to cross the ball, he somehow hit the CB standing 5 metres away; and then on the second occasion he decided to pass back, but somehow skewed the pass into a promising cross, and lost the ball to the CB;
but as sure as his name is Victor, he did not give up, and seeing a bandy legged midfielder was standing in front of him that time, he fired a cross between the midfielders legs, and somehow the ball, with a mind of its own, magically flew at the CB, who immediately counter-attacked.
On reflection, I am sure our ex-winger, now a RB (Wenger knew he would never make it as a winger) deserves a rating at maybe an 8?
[You’re never going to speak to me again, are you?] 😜