Benfica 1 Arsenal 1: Saka gets crucial away goal for Gunners but Aubameyang may rue missed chances

ARSENAL surrendered their 100 per cent Europa League record in Rome but head to Athens next week convinced they are still on course for a place in the last 16.

Bukayo Saka’s 57th minute equaliser leaves this unique tie with no home advantage perfectly poised. 

Covid restrictions meant that neither Benfica nor the Gunners were allowed to host their opponents at their own ground.

So Uefa have settled for the Italian and Greek capitals as neutral venues for this battle of these two fallen European giants.

The last time Arsenal played in the Stadio Olimpico they won a thrilling penalty shoot-out on their way to the 2009 Champions League semi-finals.

And prior to that Thierry Henry scored a memorable hat-trick to silence 70,000 stunned Roma fans back in 2002.

But those glory days of competing for club football’s biggest prize are long gone for the Gunners and now they find themselves scrapping it out in Europe’s secondary competition for a fourth successive year. 

Boss Mikel Arteta is still haunted by the memory of last season’s exit at the same stage of this competition, when they conceded in the last minute of extra-time to go out on away goals to Olympiacos.

So he was taking no chances this time, fielding his strongest possible team despite Sunday’s impending Premier League clash with runaway leaders Manchester City.

It meant the same line-up which had beaten Leeds last weekend, the first time since September 2018 that Arsenal had named an unchanged side.


That was tough to take for the kids who had served Arsenal so well in the group stage this season, winning all six of their games while scoring 20 goals in the process.

But with so much riding on progression in this competition, Arteta could not afford any room for sentiment.

Benfica were certainly a step up in class from anything that Arsenal had faced in their group games and certainly weren’t going to make life easy for Arteta.

The former Portuguese champions were chock-full of experience, with former Spurs stars Jan Vertonghen and Adel Taarabt and ex-City defender Nicolas Otamendi all giving coach Jorge Jesus the inside track on their opponents. 

Yet their lack of pace at the back was always going to be a source of opportunity for Arsenal and they should have gone ahead in the 19th minute when Hector Bellerin laid one on a plate for Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.

But with the goal at his mercy Arsenal’s captain and top scorer steered his shot the wrong side of the past from two yards out.

It was an extraordinary miss by any standards and all the more remarkable in light of Auba’s predatory hat-trick against Leeds four days earlier.

Another decent opportunity went begging five minutes from the break when Martin Odegaard and Dani Ceballos tried to walk the ball in but overcomplicated things and ended up failing to get a shot off.

And Arsenal were fortunate to make it to the half-time interval still on level terms when Granit Xhaka’s suicidal pass across his own penalty area was picked off by Alejandro Grimaldo.

Fortunately for Xhaka, Ceballos was able to scramble the ball to safety before Benfica were able to inflict any serious damage.

It was the first time all evening that the home team had offered any kind of threat to Bernd Leno’s goal.

Yet for all Arsenal’s dominance they were creating precious few chances of their own and that lack of urgency came back to bite them in the 54th minute.

A quick corner caught them napping and when Diogo Golcaves drilled a cross into the raised arm of Emile Smith Rowe, referee Cuneyt Cakir pointed straight to the spot and ‘Pizzi’ Fernandes made no mistake from 12 yards.

But the response from the visitors was swift and decisive and within three minutes they were back on level terms when Odegaard opened up the Benfica defence and Saka swept home from Cedric’s cross.

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