Oh Arsenal, you do make me age, quite significantly I can tell you.
With just over an hour gone I had come to the grim acceptance that our season was effectively over before March had even begun. We were down 2-1 to Benfica, 3-2 on aggregate, needing another two goals in the game to put us through, had not really created hatfuls of chances and were looking like going out to a side who had essentially been gifted safe passage to the next round through our own stupidity.
And it had been stupidity and self-implosion that had cost us up until that point. In the first leg we had dominated possession, chance creation, yet fell behind to a penalty. In the second leg we had given away a sloppy free kick via Ceballos on the edge of his own box and of course…OF COURSE…the guy who stepped up to take it Goncalves had never scored for Benfica. What does he do? Inevitably put it right in the top corner. It was a superb free kick that Leno could do nothing about but Ceballos was naive in dangling a leg and giving it away in the first place.
That, in comparison to what he was to do on the hour mark, pales into insignificance though, because with us dominating possession, territory, but just failing to given Helton too much to do, we gifted them a peach of a goal from our own corner. The ball in the air was a hoof up field and Ceballos’ attempt to head it back to Leno was limp and pathetic. Silva rounding Leno was no surprise and suddenly we were left with a mountain to climb due to our own silly mistakes. We had the tie in control and we found ourselves staring down the barrel of another round of 32 exit. The ghost of Olympiakos last year loomed on the horizon for us.
I didn’t hold out much hope for a come back. Southampton and West Ham aside this season we haven’t come from behind to win football matches I don’t think. Not that I can recall off the top of my head right now, anyway. Added to that, we don’t seem to be a side that scores late goals, so when the first five minutes after Benfica’s second goal had passed, I began to accept our fate.
But if I am going to criticize this side for not getting the end result and not stepping up in some of the games this season, it would be wrong of me not to praise when they deliver a comeback and boy, did we ever.
I heard somebody on Twitter describe Kieran Tierney’s left footed drive on 67 minutes as the biggest “f*ck you” goal since the Bacary Sagna header against the Scum in the North London Derby where we came from two behind to win 5-2. On that day it was the first goal we scored, but last night it was to draw us level and with 23 minutes plus stoppage time left on the clock, we had time to still have a proper go at Benfica and see if we could snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. Let’s also even have a nod to Willian, who picks up the assist for the pass to Tierney. Hopefully that does him some good.
Tie level, starting to control the ball, domnating again, but I still wasn’t overly confident. Like I say above, we haven’t tended to get late goals and we weren’t exactly creating hat-fulls of chances. But when you have somebody like Bukayo Saka in your side, you always have the opportunities at any time to get those chances. His ball across from the right hand side in to the back post did all the work. Auba still needed to be composed for the header, but it was into a zone that was a nightmare for the defenders and our big name striker delivered the goods. He said afterwards that he is pleased to have extinguished the demons of Olympiakos last season and on the ground of the same side in our ‘home’ game, I’m sure that felt like he had delivered a bit of poetic justice in that regard.
There is nothing more delicious in football than a goal to put your side ahead with so little time for the opponent to score. It’s almost like getting an extra go on a strike at bowling on the last turn. It means more somehow. Of course Arsenal wouldn’t be Arsenal without some nervous closing stages, but we saw the game out and progress to the next round, where we will inevitably get one of the more difficult teams in the competition, so probably Man United, the Scum, or AC Milan. It is almost nailed on to happen.
As for other notable moments in the game, let’s have another shout out for Bukayo Saka and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. Auba’s finish for the first goal in the first half was sublime. It was a perfectly timed run, a deft flick over the ‘keeper and was, at the time, the start of what I had hoped would be a comfortable night. That is where we want our main man. He is not as quick as he was three or four years ago, but in his mind he is and if we leave him playing off the shoulder of defenders like that, he’s getting goals. Of course it won’t always happen and Benfica played a high line all night which afforded him that space to run, but in this game he showed just what you get when you have a guy like that int he right positions on the pitch.
But Bukayo my boy, Bukayo….what a talent you are. Two assists and whilst the second will live long as it secured the win, the reverse pass to Auba for the first was equally – if not more – impressive in terms of the vision. We keep talking about not overplaying him, but he is un-droppable in that wide right position and even though Leicester on Sunday should probably be a game in which he’s given some rest, I am looking at it wondering how we could even contemplate it right now. He is on fire and this win will do the confidence of the team a world of good ahead of Sunday. Leicester will be a more difficult opponent, they will be reeling from being knocked out of the Europa League, but at least we go there on Sunday with perhaps a little bit more of a spring in our step.
Can’t ask for anything more than that.
Catch you wonderful humans tomorrow.