Saka ensures Arsenal avoid a Greek tragedy against Benfica

Gunners were on verge of exiting Europe on away goals conceded at a neutral venue

Arsenal’s  Emile Smith Rowe and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang celebrate after their win over Benfica. Photograph: Aris Messinis/Getty/AFP)

Arsenal’s Emile Smith Rowe and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang celebrate after their win over Benfica. Photograph: Aris Messinis/Getty/AFP)

 

Arsenal 3 Benfica 2 (Arsenal progress 4-3 on aggregate)

Mikel Arteta had told anyone who would listen that this was a “final” for Arsenal. They came through it, but not before staring right down the barrel. When Rafa Silva pounced on a horrendous Dani Ceballos mistake they needed to find two goals in the final half hour and a second consecutive round of 32 exit against modest opposition was in sight. This was an entire season on the line: Kieran Tierney answered the crisis call by handing them a lifeline and then, three minutes from the end, their two best players pulled another rabbit out of the hat.

Bukayo Saka had already set up Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang for a brilliant opener and now, checking onto his left foot, he floated the perfect delivery to the far post. Aubameyang pounced with a clinical header and Benfica, who had equalised through Diogo Gonçalves before putting themselves in apparent control, were left desolate.

Arsenal had set out with a degree of home comfort even if this tie, nominally hosted on their part, took place 1,500 miles away from the Emirates. They won here a year ago against Olympiacos; the requirement on this visit, though, was to avoid a repeat of the second-leg disaster that happened afterwards. It was little surprise Arteta demanded another turn from what, minus the recuperating Thomas Partey, is emerging as his strongest lineup. They had been the better side a week previously but had passed up chances to allow a more relaxed approach this time.

Aubameyang had been the culprit back then but took 21 minutes to atone. It is hardly news by now that Saka looks a more accomplished talent by the week. This time he offered his best David Silva impression, drifting in from the right before reading Aubameyang’s run perfectly and flipping a sharp 90 degree pass into his path. It was a more difficult opening than two of the three Arsenal’s captain squandered in the first leg but now he kept his cool, facing down the goalkeeper Helton and dinking a deliberate, drifting finish past him into the far corner.

“Good old Arsenal” rang out over the public address system, adding to the sense of displacement. They had not worked an opening before then but had begun in control, Benfica essentially operating with a flat back five and inviting possession. Perhaps Jorge Jesus’s side knew Arsenal are vulnerable to the sucker punch and, on their first foray, Haris Seferovic might have done better than screw across the box. Conceding early did not hugely change Benfica’s short-term task, insomuch as they required a goal in any case, but scoring would demand considerably more ambition.

They duly showed it and levelled the tie. There had been a minor warning shot when Jan Vertonghen beat David Luiz to a Pizzi cross and headed over but they did not have to wait long for a moment to savour. Arsenal were heading for half-time with relative comfort when Ceballos needlessly clipped Julian Weigl and Gonçalves, once a loanee at Nottingham Forest, could line up a free-kick from the kind of angle any right-footed specialist would dream of. His end product was from the textbook: curled up, over and down, rendering Bernd Leno helpless.

That was far from ideal for Arsenal but it had nothing on what happened next. They had emerged for the second half as if intent on clearing their heads, Aubameyang seeing a carbon-copy finish disallowed for offside and the pressure slowly ramping back up. Just after the hour they won a corner and Helton, stretching to claim Martin Ødegaard’s delivery beyond the far post, wasted no time launching the ball upfield. There seemed little danger but Ceballos, misjudging the flight, attempted an ill-advised header back to Leno from around 45 yards out. The ball merely skimmed off his head; Silva had gambled on an error and was now in the clear, easily rounding the keeper and tapping in.

Now Arsenal, who had hardly created a slew of chances, needed something special. They got halfway there within six minutes and it owed partly to good work from the often maligned Willian, who had just come on and found Tierney inside the left of the box. The resulting finish was raking, precise and enough to restore proceedings to life.

Had the Benfica substitute Darwin Núñez not drilled inches wide, that shaft of light would have been emphatically closed. Instead Arsenal hammered at the door, Saka blazing wide after a Helton error, and the question became one of whether their opponents could survive. When Saka and Aubameyang carved them open again, the answer became clear. - Guardian

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