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.