Result: Arsenal 3-2 Benfica
Competition: Europa League
Date: 25 February 2021
Venue: Karaiskakis Stadium, Athens
Arsenal: Leno, Bellerin, Luiz, Gabriel, Tierney, Ceballos, Xhaka, Odegaard, Smith Rowe, Saka, Aubameyang
Subs: Ryan, Hein, Cedric, Chambers, Mari, Elneny, Partey, Pepe, Willian, Nketiah, Lacazette, Martinelli
Bukayo Saka laid on two brilliant assists for Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang as Arsenal survived an almighty scare in Athens to secure a 4-3 aggregate win against Benfica.
The Gunners were pegged back at the break when Diogo Goncalves cancelled out Aubameyang’s opener with a stunning free-kick. The away side then put themselves within touching distance of the last-16 when Rafa Silva took advantage of a terrible mistake by Dani Ceballos only for Kieran Tierney to get us level again on the night with a fine left-foot finish.
Just as it looked like Benfica might hold out, Saka teased a cross for Aubameyang to head home the all-important winner with two minutes remaining.
Kieran Tierney may have been knackered after completing 90 minutes against Manchester City on Sunday but that didn’t stop Mikel Arteta from selecting the Scot for a second start in quick succession. Inside the left-back, David Luiz and Gabriel, who partnered each other in Rome, returned in place of Rob Holding and Pablo Mari. Thomas Partey was fit enough to make the bench but not quite ready to play from the off so Dani Ceballos was selected alongside Granit Xhaka. Ahead of them, the boss stuck with his trio of young creators – Martin Odegaard, Emile Smith Rowe and Bukayo Saka – and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang led the line.
Coming into the game with the advantage of an away goal, the Gunners seemed reluctant to go hell for leather from the off. We controlled the tempo and the ball, made pretty triangles all over the pitch and patiently bided our time. David Luiz did a lot of pointing and seemed to want to slow things to walking pace. Thankfully others showed a bit more urgency.
Odegaard saw a lot of the ball and with Saka close to him, you always sensed we had the quality to create something. The question was whether Aubameyang was in the mood or not. Our captain hinted that he might be when he chased down a Xhaka diagonal, danced into the box with a couple of stepovers and then tested the keeper, albeit with a tame effort.
Benfica focused their efforts on trying to hit us on the counter when Ceballos and Xhaka were backtracking. On a couple of occasions, they seemed to have us outnumbered by their decision-making in the final third was woeful. Their lack of progress looked like it was taking a toll on their confidence and we really took a grip on the game.
Xhaka tried his luck from range and Tierney, found by a brilliant pass by Odegaard, picked out Smith Rowe who couldn’t quite get a shot off.
Two minutes later, the goal we’d been teasing, finally came. After very precise, patient build-up play, Odegaard fed Saka who spotted an Aubameyang run and threaded a delightful reverse pass for the striker. As the keeper rushed out, he executed the perfect dinked finish and the ball nestled in the back of the net.
Having missed three great chances in Rome, this was the perfect riposte. He was quick to thank Saka for what was a quite brilliant pass. (1-0)
Six minutes, later Saka came desperately close to doubling the advantage. His run picked out by Ceballos he only had the keeper to beat but saw his shot saved by a foot. Replays suggested it might have been disallowed if it had gone in.
Given our dominance, it was all the more frustrating to head to the dressing room on level terms. In the closing stages of the half, Ceballos gave away a cheap free-kick 25-yards from goal and Diogo Goncalves stepped up and curled an unstoppable shot over the wall into the top corner. (1-1)
Knowing we needed a goal to avoid extra-time, we started with purpose. A brilliant pass by Odegaard freed Aubameyang behind the defence on 49 minutes and just like he did for his goal, he brilliantly dinked the keeper. This time though, the flag went up and VAR confirmed the offside.
Odegaard spreading the play to Tierney was a common theme but getting somebody on the end of the Scot’s balls into the box proved difficult. We won corners, but as it turned out that was not a good thing.
On the hour mark, keeper Svilar claimed from another lame set-piece and quickly launched a long-clearance that had Ceballos back-peddling. He didn’t look at all comfortable as the ball fell out of the sky and when it bounced he tried and failed to head it back to Leno. Stealing in behind him, Rafa Silva picked up the loose ball, strolled past the German and tapped into an empty net. Benfica couldn’t believe their luck. (1-2)
Arteta responded by sending on Partey and Willian for Ceballos and Smith Rowe. The response was quick. The Brazilian pulled the ball back to Tierney, who stepped inside his marker and crashed home a low shot on the diagonal. Game on. (2-2)
David Luiz, against his former club, fired wide from range. Darwin Nunez did similar for Benfica. We looked as likely to concede as score. The visitors messed up a break after we gave away the ball sloppily and Saka fired over after Aubameyang had done well charging down a clearance by the keeper.
Lacazette came on for Bellerin which meant Saka went to right wing-back. The change left gaping holes in midfield and left us very exposed. At a time when we should have been dominating proceedings, they were all over us.
It took five minutes of panic football but we got a grip on things. Then, with three minutes remaining, we got the goal we needed. Saka on the right, clipped a perfect cross to the back post for Aubameyang to head home. You beauty! (3-2)
Could we hold out in four minutes of stoppage time? Chambers and Elneny came on to sure things up. We sat deep, 11 men behind the ball. Silva hit the post for Benfica with a header only to be flagged offside. Hearts in mouth stuff. Not long after the whistle went. Fucking hell, Arsenal. You don’t make it easy, do you?