The supposed Arsenal vs Benfica home game tie was an uncomfortable affair as the Gunners struggled to make it through to the next round of the Europa League. The problem was of their own making with Dani Ceballos turning provider for the opposition in a match where he had looked fairly solid.
Ceballos conceded a baffling free-kick for the first which was spanked into the goal by Goncalves and Lord alone knows what the number 8 was doing for the second. The ball arrived head height and with unlimited options ahead of him, the Spaniard decided to head back to his keeper who was the length of a train platform away, leaving a grateful Silva to sweep the ball past Leno.
Arsenal survived, courtesy of three superb goals from Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (21, 87) and punctuated by the energetic and passionate Kieran Tierney (67), with the final scoreline being 3-2. It wasn’t a night for those of a nervous disposition and although the focus afterwards was firmly focused on the efforts of Arsenal’s left-back, whose strike energised Mikel Arteta’s nervous side, it was hard to deny that the Man of the Match was Bukayo Saka.
I feel compelled to extol the virtues of a 19-year-old who is carving out a sensational career in North London by performing to a standard rarely seen at the top level. He appears like an overnight success story but that’s a gross simplification of the investment of the club and the player himself. He had shown promise before Arteta arrived, as a versatile ‘Jack of all trades’, but has now become one of the first names on the team sheet and Arsenal’s most consistent performer.
At this point, one has to ask if Mikel Arteta has had a major impact and influence on the rising star? I think there’s a case to be had here, especially after the rewards from his work with Raheem Sterling at Manchester City. Fickle Arsenal fans generally forget what goes on behind the scenes, they are more concerned with the result and league positions, as a result, the bigger picture is obscured.
Saka showed in the Arsenal vs Benfica game that he has pace, intelligence, and vision and his ability to provide Aubameyang with a killer cross or pass could still see his Captain challenge for the golden boot at this rate. Forget Saka’s speed for a second, although he has plenty to burn, his general attacking appetite, clever footwork, and exceptional football brain indicate that this lad will reach the very top of World football, let alone in the Premier League.
Am I getting carried away? No, but of course he’s still ticking the boxes and swapping potential for performances but I’ve not been this excited about a number 7 in an Arsenal shirt since David Rocastle, Robert Pires, and Chippy Brady.
Of course, it’s even more special that he’s homegrown and I mean that with the utmost respect. Arsenal haven’t been the most successful at promoting and integrating academy players into the first team, having displayed a hefty reliance on their bank account to bring in the required talent and rewards.
Saka vs Benfica
100% aerials won
92% passing accuracy
5 touches in opp. box
2 ball recoveries
2 chances created
All eyes in world football are on this man at present. In years to come we'll realise how incredibly fortunate we were are #Saka pic.twitter.com/cpev97V3mB
— Arsenal Fans Network (@Real_Arsedevils) February 26, 2021
Saka is currently blazing a trail for his academy teammates by showing that the transition is entirely possible, removing the preconceptions, and generally breaking down the myths about Arsenal selling off their gems to find big names.
Aubameyang’s first goal was from the most incredible slide-rule pass from Saka, which caught a usually stingy Benfica defence completely and utterly flat. Aubameyang gobbled up the chance because it was on a plate for him to do so and anything other than a goal would have been a complete dereliction of a striker’s duty.
The Gabonese striker nearly added to his goal tally after Diogo Goncalves’ wonder strike complicated the Arsenal vs Benfica tie, with Ceballos finding his teammate through a sea of shirts but it was adjudged to be offside (49) and in my opinion, it was a distinctly vinegary call.
Silva dispatched the Ceballos gift gratefully (60) and Arsenal were looking at the trap door with Benfica’s hand firmly in the drop handle but Tierney wasn’t in the mood to go out of the Europa League at this stage and he rifled in a shot with the ruthlessness efficiency of an assassin from a Willian pass. Yes, you read that correctly, Willian.
The Scot peeled away shouting and pumping his fist which is just one of the reasons he is adored by the Arsenal fans and the goal was the catalyst for this unlikely revival against the odds with the stage set for Saka to steal the Arsenal vs Benfica game from the jaws of almost certain defeat.
Xhaka passed to Odegaard, who swept the ball out to Saka on the right. The rising star tricked his way into a position to cross with his balletic footwork and Aubameyang swept in unseen at the far post to send Arsenal through. It was an uneasy watch at times, but the end justifies the means and Arteta needs to knock on Edu’s office door and demand contract talks for Saka with immediate effect.