Result: Benfica 1-1 Arsenal
Competition: Europa League
Date: 18 February 2021
Venue: Stadio Olimpico, Rome
Arsenal: Leno, Bellerin, Luiz, Gabriel, Cedric, Xhaka, Ceballos, Smith Rowe, Saka, Odegaard, Aubameyang
Subs: Ryan, Hein, Tierney, Lacazette, Willian, Holding, Pepe, Chambers, Mari, Elneny, Nketiah, Martinelli
Arsenal came from behind to secure a 1-1 draw with Benfica in the first leg of our last 32 clash in Rome.
The Gunners dominated large swathes of the game and had clear chances to break the deadlock before falling behind to a Pizzi penalty on 55 minutes. While Bukayo Saka levelled from close range within a couple of minutes it wasn’t the springboard for a win.
Instead of going for the jugular, Mikel Arteta’s side decided to keep their powder dry for the return leg in Athens. A risky tactic, let’s hope it pays off.
Mikel Arteta obviously liked what he saw in the win against Leeds. For the first time since he took over as boss, the Spaniard opted for the same starting XI meaning Martin Odegaard, lavished with praise in the pre-game press conference, was afforded a second consecutive start alongside Emile Smith Rowe and Bukayo Saka. In the absence of Thomas Partey, Dani Ceballos continued alongside Granit Xhaka. With 12 subs allowed on the bench, there was room for Kieran Tierney, on the mend after lower leg and knee problems, Eddie Nketiah and young keeper Karl Hein as well as the usual suspects.
Arsenal started the game confidently and seemed eager to work the ball around the pitch in an attempt to stretch the ‘home’ side and get them running. The Portuguese weren’t having any of it.
They showed little ambitious to chase the ball in Arsenal’s half and instead conserved their energy, in a tight formation that kept things cramped in the centre of the park. Slow the tempo seemed to be their tactic and it worked.
Our response was to try and spring the attackers with early lobbed passes from deep. Xhaka and Luiz tried to free Aubameyang and Smith Rowe with mixed results. It wasn’t until Ceballos, who had a very tidy first half, picked up the ball on 19 minutes that we created a chance of real merit.
The Spaniard spotting a darting run by Bellerin threaded a beautiful pass inside the defence that left the right-back with all the time in the world to roll a pass to Aubameyang. It looked harder to miss than score. But miss he did. The striker couldn’t quite believe he’d stroked wide with the goal gaping.
Benfica continued to frustrate us and through a good few niggly challenges into the mix. The number of times Vertonghen went through the back of Saka unpunished was as ridiculous as the number of times Aubameyang was flagged offside. Arteta was not amused by either situation.
Saka tried his luck with his left peg but couldn’t get enough whip. Smith Rowe nearly took advantage of a Vertonghen slip at the near post but had an effort blocked for a corner and Odegaard refused to shoot having shown wickedly quick feet to free space for himself in a crowded box. It was a Hleb-esque moment from the Norwegian and he was lucky the offside flag spared his blushes.
A relatively controlled half had a hair-raising finale when Xhaka tried an ambitious diagonal ball out of defence that was stolen by Benfica and left us backtracking and outnumbered. Ceballos did well to mop up the danger before the defence turned their collective glare on the Swiss.
Two chances inside the opening five minutes suggested the boss had called for more urgency. Saka was pivotal in both attacks. First, he picked out Smith Rowe with a teasing cross (the midfielder was flagged offside) and then he snatched at a shot when he really should have found the net.
We were made to pay inside three minutes. Smith Rowe trying to defend a short corner saw a cross hit his arm and the Turkish referee pointed to the spot. It was harsh on the youngster but VAR was never going to overrule it. Pizzi stepped up and after a hop, skip and a jump, rolled the ball to Leno’s left. (1-0)
Thankfully, we struck back quickly. A long ball released Saka on the right and even though our initial attack broke down on the edge of the area, Odegaard managed to salvage the situation. Pouncing on a loose ball he split Benfica’s disorganised defence to find Cedric on the overlap and the Portuguese picked out Saka for a tap in. There was a nervous wait while VAR took a look but the goal stood. (1-1)
As the game opened up, the chances started to flow. Leno made a flying save and Aubameyang went just wide on the diagonal. After Everton flashed over Leno’s bar, Aubameyang had a third clear opportunity to get on the scoresheet but having running through on goal he tried to turn back and in doing so lost the ball.
It was his last action of the night. On came Pepe and Martinelli for him and Smith Rowe. Tierney had already joined the fray 10 minutes earlier. For some reason, Xhaka, Gabriel and Luiz took the introduction of fresh legs to play triangles on the edge of our own box for about 10 minutes. We didn’t even look particularly comfortable doing it.
While you can understand holding out for a draw – not to be sniffed at on the road in the knockout stages of a European competition – it definitely felt like there was more on the table tonight. Yes we have an away goal, but at the same time, we’re not really at home in the second leg and we’ve screwed things up from better positions in the past. Just look at last year.