Heading into Thursday night’s second leg match against Benfica, Arsenal fans were all too aware of the dangers involved in taking supposedly inferior opposition lightly.
Last year’s exit against Olympiacos wasn’t so much an upset as a shock of seismic proportions that stunned the club and its supporters to the core. Consequently, it was fitting that, 12 months on, Arsenal atoned for that fateful night in the stadium of the side who knocked them out of the Europa League last term.
A battling Benfica side featuring a host of recognisable names including Jan Vertonghen, Adel Taarabt and Nicolas Otamendi made life difficult for Mikel Arteta’s men, but theymade far harder work of the tie themselves through a collective failure to banish basic errors from their game.
Now Thursday night regulars, nervy nights in the second tier of European competition have become almost commonplace for Arsenal fans. Benfica, who are in danger of finishing outside the top three in Portugal’s domestic league for the first time in 13 seasons, are not the continental force of yesteryear. As fondly as the team that won successive European Cups in the early 1960s will be remembered, this version of OsEncarnados is nowhere near the level of Eusebio and co. The Gunners should have sauntered through to the last 16 butsuffered a severe case of stage fright under the evening spotlight.
A howler of a missed header from Dani Ceballos, who backpedalled so perilously in jumping for the ball that he ended up doing a perfect impression of Michael Jackson’s moonwalk, allowed Rafa Silva to stroll the ball into an empty net. Arsenal now needed to score twice to advance. Kieran Tierney fired an effort into the far corner to give them hope, but another tragic exit was a mere three minutes away.
Cue the centre stage arrival of protagonist Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.
Guilty of missing chances that were gilt-edged in Rome a week ago, the skipper made amends for a poor performance at the Olimpico, when he rose highest to head home a ball from the ever-lively Bukayo Saka. Of course, with it being a game involving Arsenal, there was time for one more act in a frantic finale. In the 92nd minute, the ball crashed against Bernd Leno’s post and Gooners who did not swallow their tongue in fright, let out an exasperated sigh of relief.
Arteta’s side showed grit, fight and resolve in rallying from behind to snatch the tie yet, as promising as it is to see Arsenal win in a steely fashion, it should not detract from other problems that have become apparent.
Conceding twice to Benfica means a sixth successive game without a clean sheet for the men in red and white. A lack of solidity at the back must be addressed with Leicester, Tottenham and Liverpool to come in the Premier League. At the other end of the park, Arsenal were clinical in Athens, scoring three times from five shots on target. However, an xG (expected goals) of just 2.55 over two legs versus Benfica demonstrates lingering deficiencies in chance creation that need to be tackled.
Over-playing the aforementioned Saka is another issue Arteta must be wary of. He is, without doubt, Arsenal’s most dynamic and unpredictable attacking threat, so adept is he at driving into space with the ball from midfield or, as he did for Aubameyang, putting it on a plate for team-mates to finish. Despite his importance to this team, Saka is still just 19 years of age and must not be played into the ground whilst still developing.
Arteta has previously called for Nicolas Pepe to perform more consistently, something the Ivorian may be able to achieve were he to regularly appear in the starting line-up. The return of Gabriel Martinelli provides another handy rotational option, as he is capable of filling across the front three. Whatever the Arsenal manager’s personal policy on rotation is, he cannot afford to neglect it, particularly if the north Londoners are to progress further in the Europa League off the back of a morale-boosting victory in Greece.
Naturally, for a side that finds itself in mid-table, there are issues and imperfections that require ironing if Arsenal are to qualify for Europe through the league. And yet, a
topsy-turvy tie that ended in progression this time round serves as an example for Arteta and Arsenal. An example which demonstrates that, if application levels are high, all is not lost in what remains of this strange season.
Zac CampbellFollow @ZPRCampbell