Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang pounced for the goal that could save Arsenal's season as his late header earned a 3-2 win over Benfica in Greece. (More Football News)
The Gunners scraped through to the Europa League last-16 stage, winning the tie 4-3 on aggregate thanks to two goals from captain Aubameyang and one from Kieran Tierney, but it was very nearly a shocker of a night for Mikel Arteta and his team.
They took the lead through Aubameyang, but Dani Ceballos then blundered twice and Diogo Goncalves and Rafa put Benfica ahead.
Kieran Tierney hit back, yet it looked as though Arsenal, the designated home team, would be eliminated on the away-goals rule until Aubameyang headed in Bukayo Saka's cross in the 87th minute, ensuring their only realistic route into next season's Champions League was not cut off.
3-2 (87)February 25, 2021
Aubameyang's class told in the 21st minute, when a match short on quality in its early stages was brightened up by the former Borussia Dortmund striker meeting Saka's terrific pass into the penalty area and chipping delicately over goalkeeper Helton Leite.
But the Lisbon giants were level in the 43rd minute when Diogo Goncalves curled a sublime free-kick strike into the top left corner, after Ceballos tripped Julian Weigl on the edge of the penalty area.
It was Benfica's first successful direct strike from a free-kick in the Europa League since 2014, and one to admire.
Aubameyang had the ball in the net again early in the second half after a sharp pass from Martin Odegaard, but the Arsenal captain was ruled to have stepped fractionally offside.
The real shocker from Ceballos came in the 61st minute when his intended header back to Bernd Leno was woefully under-powered and Rafa beat the goalkeeper to the ball, dashing through to fire into an empty net.
Ceballos was immediately hauled off. Manager Arteta needed a response and it came from Tierney, the left-back sidestepping a challenge and lashing a low shot into the far- right corner from 15 yards.
The winners of this competition go into next season's Champions League, and this Arsenal side would be out of their depth at that level in their current shape, but in Saka and Aubameyang they have two top-class performers.
With time running out, they combined to impactful effect for the second time in the game as Saka's teasing ball from the left found the head of Aubameyang, he nodded in, and Arsenal somehow survived.
What does it mean? Captain comes good
The goals had dried up for Aubameyang earlier this season, but he has sprung back to form since the turn of the year. And when the team needed him to come good, the skipper delivered. He was in the right place at the right time and spared his manager a fresh humiliation in what is proving a tough campaign. Perhaps Arsenal will go on to win this competition, perhaps it will be the turning point of the Arteta era, or perhaps this very average Gunners side got lucky against a similarly mediocre Benfica.
Saka, Odegaard and Emile Smith Rowe were chosen in attacking midfield roles ahead of Pepe and Willian for this important game, a reflection of Arteta's trust in his young players but a move that might cause the more experienced pair to wonder where their opportunities are going to come. If not on a big European night, then when? Odegaard played more passes (44) than anyone in the first half but lacked real punch in the number 10 role, while Smith Rowe was a fringe figure on the right. Saka, however, continues to impress. As well as his two assists, he had two shots and looks destined to play at a higher level than this. Pep Guardiola rates him, and Arteta must cling to him.
Dani, oh boy!
Ceballos had a night to forget, giving away the free-kick from which Benfica conjured their equaliser and then committing the howler that allowed the fourth-placed team in Portugal's Primeira Liga to go in front. He also won the ball nine times, which was more than any other Arsenal player during his time on the pitch, made three tackles and had a 91.2 per cent pass completion rate. But it was fair to say his night would not be remembered for those numbers.
Key Opta Facts:
- Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang has scored in seven of his last eight cup matches for Arsenal (10 goals in total – FA Cup x5, UEFA Europa League x4, Community Shield x1), only failing to net against Benfica in the first leg during this run.
- Only Trent Alexander-Arnold (20) has more assists among English players for Premier League clubs in all competitions since the start of last season than Bukayo Saka (18), following his two assists this evening.
- Bernd Leno made his 100th appearance for Arsenal in all competitions this evening becoming the fifth German player to reach this milestone for the club after Jens Lehmann (200), Per Mertesacker (221) Mesut Ozil (254) & Shkodran Mustafi (151).
- Kieran Tierney became the first Scotsman to score for Arsenal in a major European competition since Willie Young against IFK Göteborg in March 1980 in the Cup Winners Cup quarter final.
Arsenal tackle third-placed Leicester City at the King Power Stadium on Sunday, in a major Premier League test for Arteta's mid-table side. Benfica have an extra day's rest, returning to domestic duties against Rio Ave on Monday evening.