SL Benfica (0) 1 Arsenal (0) 1
UEFA Europa League, Round of 32, Leg 1 of 2
Stadio Olimpico, Viale dei Gladiatori, 00135 Roma RM, Italy
Thursday, 18th February 2021. Kick-off time: 8.00pm
(4-2-3-1) Bernd Leno; Hector Bellerin, David Luiz, Gabriel Magalhães, Cédric Soares; Martin Ødegaard, Dani Ceballos; Granit Xhaka, Bukayo Saka, Emile Smith-Rowe; Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.
Substitutes: Kieran Tierney, Alexandre Lacazette, Willian Borges da Silva, Rob Holding, Nicolas Pépé, Calum Chambers, Pablo Marí, Mohamed Elneny, Eddie Nketiah, Mat Ryan, Gabriel Martinelli, Karl Hein.
Scorers: Bukayo Saka (57 mins)
Arsenal Possession Percentage: 59%
Referee: Cüneyt Çakir (Turkey)
Assistant Referees: Bahattin Duran (Turkey), Tarik Ongun (Turkey)
Fourth Official: Halis Özkahya (Turkey)
Referee Observer: Elmir Pilav (Bosnia and Herzegovina)
VAR Team (UEFA): VAR Massimiliano Irrati (Italy); AVAR Michael Fabbri (Italy)
Attendance: A minimal amount of attendees (circa 3,000) due to coronavirus restrictions
As has been reported in the media recently, due to coronavirus issues both here and on the European mainland, these two ties will be held at neutral venues. Tonight’s match will be played at the Olympic Stadium in Rome, home of Lazio and AS Roma, and is a perfect backdrop for two clubs of this stature. Unfortunately, Thomas Partey is not available due to injury, but Kieran Tierney is on the substitute’s bench tonight after a period of injury. Let’s go!
We started the match brightly, with intent on bringing the game to Benfica, with good passing movement and excellent pace up front. Our electric pace meant that we were caught in an offside trap once or twice in the first ten minutes, but that did not deter us in our mission to win this contest here in Rome tonight. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang missed an open goal from point-blank range after eighteen minutes, when it was easier to score than miss, and it was after this incident that Benfica started to wake up and somehow the game became some kind of mobile chess match involving all twenty-two players. With Benfica playing with five at the back when we moved forward, this made things a trifle difficult for the chaps to break through; however, this only served for our players to hit long-range shots in order to try to open the scoring, the best opportunity of which fell to Bukayo Saka, whose twenty-yard shot was scooped up by the Benfica ’keeper quite easily. Both sides appeared to be very nervous indeed, very aware of not making a mistake that might lead to conceding a goal. Five minutes before the break however, we so nearly scored when the quick feet of Martin Ødegaard jinked and turned and passed his way through the Benfica defenders in the penalty area, but unluckily lost his footing just in front of the goal, which ultimately meant that the Benfica goalkeeper easily retrieved it. Despite some shenanigans in our penalty area during injury time, we finished the first half of this match honours even, but in essence we were by far the better side overall.
With no changes at half-time, we started the second half with the same purpose and passion that we ended the first, really. Emile Smith-Rowe was desperately unlucky not to score when his point-blank shot was saved by the goalkeeper’s legs; even though it was offside, it was still a great chance squandered. A few minutes later, after some great passing movements, Bukayo Saka’s clever shot just shaved the outside of the Benfica post, and then, completely against the run of play, a penalty was given for Benfica when a cross from a corner unfortunately hit Emile Smith-Rowe on the arm in our penalty area, as he turned away from the ball, which all players do, of course. Afonso Fernandes (aka Pizzi) made no mistake from the spot to give Benfica the advantage. We responded immediately, with Bukayo Saka scoring a great goal; we stretched the Benfica defence, and Cédric Soares delivered a great ball into the penalty area for our number seven to score from close range. And then, after a heart-stopping few moments when the referee consulted VAR, and the pitchside monitor, we were given the goal, and quite rightly so, too. The goal fired us up, and by rights, we should have taken the lead when both Emile Smith-Rowe and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang were unfortunate not to score. Kiernan Tierney replaced the man who laid the ball on for the goal, Cédric Soares, after sixty-three minutes, and at this point in the match we started to play some determined football, showing a real desire to score and to leave Rome as winners tonight. Arsenal were first to the tackle, constantly asking questions of the Benfica defence, and as opportunities came and went, it almost seemed like a matter of time before we scored. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Emile Smith-Rowe made way for Nicolas Pépé and Gabriel Martinelli in a seventy-fifth minute double substitution, and still we tried desperately to score, but to no avail. Dani Ceballos and Martin Ødegaard were replaced by Willian and Mohamed Elneny with a couple of minutes left on the clock, with the idea of injury time consolidation over four minutes by Mikel Arteta, no doubt. And so it finished as a draw, with next week’s match in Athens now becoming the crucial, must-win game.
Yes, we should have won. Yes, we squandered chances that would have put Benfica away. But we didn’t. But it’s okay. However, looking on the positive side, we didn’t pick up any silly bookings, controversial sending-offs and absolutely no injuries; and with the Manchester City game coming up on Sunday (and Leicester City match on the horizon too), tonight’s match, in the cold light of day, may well seem like a good result in the fullness of time. We still have the second leg in Athens next Thursday to deal with, and putting this evening behind us, after what we saw of Benfica, we have the players and the system to beat them. And we will, you just wait and see.
Remember everyone, keep the faith, get behind the team and the manager, as this season is going to be crucial for our future success in all competitions. Stick with the winners. Our next match: Manchester City at the Emirates on Sunday, 21st February at 4.30pm (Premier League). Victoria Concordia Crescit.
Too Dearly Loved To Be Forgotten: Arsenal v Racing Club de Paris 1930-1962 by Steve Ingless (Rangemore Publications, ISBN 978-1-5272-0135-4) is now available on Amazon.