Arsenal (1) 3 SL Benfica (1) 2
(Arsenal won 4-3 on aggregate)
UEFA Europa League, Round of 32, Leg 2 of 2
Stadio Georgios Karaiskakis, Piraeus 185 47, Attica, Athens, Greece
Thursday, 25th February 2021. Kick-off time: 5.55pm
(4-2-3-1) Bernd Leno; Hector Bellerin, David Luiz, Gabriel Magalhães, Kieran Tierney; Dani Ceballos, Granit Xhaka; Bukayo Saka, Martin Ødegaard, Emile Smith-Rowe; Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.
Substitutes: Alexandre Lacazette, Willian Borges da Silva, Cédric Soares, Thomas Partey, Nicolas Pépé, Calum Chambers, Pablo Marí, Mohamed Elneny, Eddie Nketiah, Mat Ryan,Gabriel Martinelli, Karl Hein.
Scorers: Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (21 mins, 87 mins), Kieran Tierney (67 mins)
Arsenal Possession Percentage: 53%
Referee: Björn Kuipers (Netherlands)
Assistant Referees: Sander van Roekel (Netherlands), Erwin Zeinstra (Netherlands)
Fourth Official: Danny Makkelie (Netherlands)
Referee Observer: Georgios Bikas (Greece)
VAR Team (UEFA): VAR Pol van Boekel (Netherlands); AVAR Rob Dieperink (Netherlands)
Attendance: A minimal amount of attendees (circa 3,000) due to coronavirus restrictions
Make no mistake about it, tonight’s match may as well be a cup final, with all the importance that such a game carries for us at this point in the season. We have to be victorious, in order for the team to have a chance to progress into the Champions League next season, because if we fail, it will make things extremely difficult for us, as our Premiership form does not (at the moment), suggest a top four finish in May. With regards to team news for the game, Rob Holding has not travelled to Greece because of UEFA/Premier League concussion protocols after his head injury suffered in Sunday’s match against Manchester City, whilst midfielder Thomas Partey had a late fitness check after a hamstring injury, and is on the substitutes’ bench tonight. Let’s go!
Although Benfica pinned us back into our own half in the early stages of the match, we managed to get a grip and started to push the ball around a bit, particularly out on the wings where the visitors seemed to be vulnerable. Just on quarter of an hour, Kieran Tierney made a spirited charge down the flank, but he was prevented from advancing any further when defender Ferreira Silva won the ball with a sliding challenge. Martin Ødegaard and Bukayo Saka were linking up well in the central areas, (which is where we miss Thomas Partey at times like this), and it looked like a matter of time before we found a way through the Benfica defence. And sure enough, young Bukayo Saka pushed a inch-perfect pass through the Benfica defence, and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang ran on to it and chipped a beautiful ball over Benfica goalkeeper Helton Leite to open the scoring after just twenty-one minutes. We started to get the wind in our sails now, and a few minutes later, Dani Ceballos tried to extend our lead as he hit a ball from the edge of the penalty area but his shot was parried away by the Benfica goalie for an Arsenal corner. Although there was a bit of a heartstopping moment when former Tottenham Hotspur defender Jan Vertonghen outjumped David Luiz and headed a ball over the bar from a free kick after thirty-five minutes, overall, we looked to be the more confident side at this point in the game. Five minutes before the break, Bukayo Saka ran onto a ball from Emile Smith-Rowe, and his neat shot went just past the Benfica post. Completely against the run of play, two minutes before half-time, we gave away a sloppy free-kick just outside the penalty area. Cupido Goncalves stepped up and hit a perfect ball into the back of our net past the outstretched arm of Bernd Leno to equalise the scores going into the break.
Despite some tough play at the beginning of the second half, four minutes after the break we found a way through the Benfica defence for Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang to score a seemingly perfect goal, only to find it was chalked off for offside. This incident merely served to fire us up, and we were then playing a high-line, pushing Benfica well back into their own half, almost near to the penalty area for large periods of the game. On the hour, the nightmare happened. From a Martin Ødegaard corner, in a classic smash’n’grab movement, goalkeeper Helton Leite grabbed the ball out of the air, and launched it down the field and Dani Ceballos, being the last man, attempted a header back, but it fell short, sadly. Ferreira Silva quickly ran on to it, touched it past Bernd Leno and walked the ball into the net. Absolute disaster. Almost immediately, Dani Ceballos and Emile Smith-Rowe were replaced by Willian and (at last) Thomas Partey. The effect was almost instant, as new boy on the pitch Willian found himself free down the left wing, pulled the ball back for Kieran Tierney, who composed himself and expertly drilled an unstoppable shot into the corner of the net. With thirteen minutes of the match remaining, Hector Bellerin was replaced by Alexandre Lacazette for a final push to grab more goals, which we desperately needed, because at that moment we were going out of the competition on the away goals rule. It was now becoming obvious that Benfica were just running down the clock as they were quite happy (obviously) to do so. When we did win the ball, and started advancing towards their goal, all they had to do was to get ten men behind the ball and slow everything up. Incredibly, with three minutes left of the match, somebody up there liked us, when Bukayo Saka hooked the ball over beautifully from the left, which went beyond the goalkeeper, and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang headed the ball into an empty net! Despite a VAR check, in which everyone’s hearts was in their mouths, the goal was given, and we were ahead. Mikel Arteta replaced Martin Ødegaard and Bukayo Saka for Calum Chambers and Mohamed Elneny to shore things up at the back, which worked perfectly, as minutes later, the referee blew his whistle to signal the end of the match, with Arsenal in the draw for the last sixteen of the Europa League tomorrow.
Now that we have all put our collective hearts back into our quivering chests, this was a memorable night for everyone involved with the club. Yes, it could have gone badly wrong, but it never did, thanks to the collective sheer guts of this group of players, their never-say-die attitude and desire to win. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang got his shooting boots back on, Bukayo Saka is growing into a fantastic footballer with a natural ability for finding space when there does not seem to be any, and Kieran Tierney must surely be, currently, one of the best two or three left-backs in the world. We may have only got five shots on target, but hey, three of them were goals; and this group of players are growing together in stature and class. Believe me, the best is yet to come from this group of players.
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: Leicester City at King Power Stadium on Sunday, 28th February at noon (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.