Arsenal really could have put their Europa League knockout stage tie with Benfica to bed tonight. The Portuguese side were poor all match, especially in the opening 30 minutes, and the Gunners did not take advantage. A 1-1 draw with an “away” goal (technically this was a Benfica home match even though it was played in Rome) isn’t a bad result per se, but it leaves everything to do in the “return” leg next week in Athens.
It was a night of what-if’s for Arsenal, most of them going wide off the foot of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. He missed an absolute sitter in the opening 15 minutes, dragged a decent chance wide in the second half, and didn’t even manage a shot on a breakaway a bit later. That’s what you get with PEA — he’s always been a high volume of chances, mediocre chance conversion type of player.
I really cannot overstate how poor Benfica looked. They came out not up for it and never really committed numbers forward, even at 1-1. They got their goal via an extremely harsh on Arsenal and Emile Smith Rowe handball in the box that, if we’re being honest, I never really saw a good enough replay to even grudgingly conclude that it was a penalty. That said, Emile Smith Rowe didn’t protest all that much, so maybe that’s all the indication we need. But I think it’s fair to say it was one of those “could have gone either way” calls at the very least.
Arsenal equalized through Bukayo Saka (who else) just a few minutes after going behind. Cedric put in a nice cross, and Saka did really well to adjust himself to steer it home. Other than that assist, it was a match to forget for Cedric. He put ESR in a poor position with a lazy pass that forced the corner that led to the handball, and the Portuguese left back just wasn’t up to snuff on the day, generally. Fortunately, Kieran Tierney looks good to go, replacing Cedric for what I’m sure was a scheduled second half runout.
Martin Ødegaard was great. His passing was incisive, and his dribbling purposeful. He lived up to the billing tonight. Dani Ceballos had a tidy match. Granit Xhaka had an off night. The pair of them, and the entire team, really, are still getting used to playing with Ødegaard. There were several occasions where Arsenal players could have passed to him, but instead chose another (usually incorrect) option. It’s a bit like what we saw when Thomas Partey first came into the side. Hopefully, like with Partey, Arsenal will quickly grow out of the habit.
Again, it’s quite disappointing that Arsenal didn’t seize control of the tie on the evening because it was there for the taking. You have to think that Benfica will play better next week (although it’s also possible that this is just what they are as a club — I’m hoping for that). Either way, if Arsenal put in a better performance, they should get through. But since it’s Arsenal, I’ll be nervous all week. The things we endure for this club.