Before this game began I looked at Benfica, looked at some of the players they had – the likes of Ottamendi and Verthongen as well as Rafa and Everton – and I was bemoaning our bad luck in drawing quite a high profile team in the first knockout round of this competition.
This morning I am bemoaning something a little different because, if I’m honest, I didn’t think Benfica were all that and I think Arsenal missed an opportunity to put this two legged tie to bed in Rome last night.
Arteta went with the same line up as the weekend win at Leeds and named the front four that played against Bielsa’s men. I was a little surprised by that but not unhappy; we had played well, scored goals and Arteta was probably hoping to replicate that form on what was our ‘away’ leg and the goals that would come of it. And I thought we started brightly and we’re on control of the game. We had more ball, we looked to be getting in behind occasionally and the movement of our forward players and full backs were causing them problems. The only thing we lacked was a goal.
We had the chances too, not least in Aubameyang who should have scored what felt like a trademark tap in from a great bit of build up and good run from Bellerin. The Spaniard made that run a few times yesterday and it is because of that drive and the good passing of our players that we were able to get into some great positions. But sadly we were just lacking in the penalty box and I must admit to you now, I thought it was going to be ‘one of those nights’, especially after that Auba miss and going in for half time having not made our dominance count.
I thought that Benfica would come out in the second half and have a proper go at us though and that we might see even more space. But the Portuguese side clearly had the away goals thing in their mind because I didn’t really think they created anything major all night. Leno had one save to make but apart from that was pretty untroubled I thought.
So of course they were going to be the team to break the deadlock and of course it was going to come at the expense of us giving away a penalty.
At first I thought it was ridiculously soft, but the more I watched the replays the more I realised that Smith Rowe was probably guilty of a little naivety by having his hand up there when it really didn’t need to be. It was hardly a ‘natural’ position so I think we probably can’t have too many complaints about its award. It’s just frustrating because we had totally restricted Benfica to any proper chances and I really wasn’t too concerned at all by what they had to offer.
So not for the first time this season we find ourselves talking about shooting ourselves in the foot through our own mistakes.
But what was pleasing was the response and we got that response almost instantaneously. The ball from Ødegaard to Cedric was brilliant and the cross in from the Portuguese was spot on for Saka to sweep home. There was the inevitable VAR check – we are Arsenal after all and if officials can find the tiniest hint of a reason to disallow the goal then they will. There was no reason though and the goal stood.
It was yet another bit of end product from Saka and he is growing in influence with every second on the pitch. He was good all night, looks like he’s walking a little bit taller with the confidence he’s showing, and it is great for us as Arsenal fans to see one of our own elevate his game seemingly each week. His touch is deft, he’s getting goals and assists to his good build up play, he’s looking every bit the star we all hoped he was.
Level on terms within a few minutes and I think we all thought we’d go on to at least get that second. But we didn’t and that is a frustration because it does feel like there is an opportunity missed in the cold light of morning. The next game may now be like a ‘one off’ but in reality it isn’t because if we concede two goals or more and end up drawing then we’re out.
I don’t want to jinx us though, but if Benfica play like they did last night in the second leg – so passive and lacking any real invention – then we’ll have little to worry about from a defensive point of view. But we do have to find an answer in the attacking third and that will have to come in Greece. Whilst saying ‘we only need to win the second leg’ is one thing, we didn’t win the first last night having been much the better side, so it still feels like this game is delicately balanced.
On we go. It’s Man City at the weekend and that will be super tough. I hope Mikel has a game plan though, because they are on fire, so we will need to be at our best to keep the momentum.
Catch you all tomorrow.