The importance of taking the few chances served up at this stage of the Europa League cannot be overstated and in my preview of Benfica v Arsenal, I laboured the point.
After a fine hat trick against Leeds, one would have thought that a rejuvenated Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang would have gobbled up any hint of an opening to increase his goal tally for the season, but worryingly for Arsenal, his radar was way off as he fluffed a series of decent chances that could have seen Arsenal leave Rome 4 goals to the good and sitting comfortably for the next leg.
However, the Gunners appear to prefer a challenge and after Pizzi scored a penalty for a supposed handball, Arsenal’s player of the season so far, Bukayo Saka, showed his captain how to put the ball in the net. He’d threatened to do so on more than one occasion and one sensed that it was a case of cometh the hour, cometh the man, well almost at 19. I find myself having to curb my excitement for this player in terms of what he and this Arsenal side could achieve in the seasons ahead, with a few more tweaks in personnel.
I don’t think I’ve seen the same kind of progress from anyone in such a short space of time other than Wayne Rooney when he announced himself as a talent in the Premier League for Everton in October 2002 with a sublime curling goal against Arsenal. The only difference is that Saka has far more finesse and ability than Rooney ever had and he could well be twice as big a name at this rate, I digress, let’s get back to the Benfica v Arsenal match.
Arsenal are now in a finely poised fixture where mistakes often unfairly determine the passage through to the next round of the Europa League and if that happens, then they will look back at this first leg and rue their failure to convert possession and dominance into goals.
Replaying the moment, Bellerin manufactured a divine cross (19) into the path of the advancing Aubameyang, a goal looked almost inevitable, meat and potatoes tap in to put Arsenal ahead but it remained free from the confines of the Benfica net.
I leapt off the sofa convinced that the Gunners Captain had played a vital role in the Benfica v Arsenal game and I probably looked as dumbfounded as he did that, the ball managed to go wide of its intended resting place. That moment looks familiar in the history of Arsenal’s failed European adventures and looms ominously over the return tie which will almost certainly be a tense watch.
Arsenal’s reply was mainly the product of the silky foot of Odegaard who put a precise pass into the advancing Cedric, he in turn delivered a beautiful cross for Saka to ram home from around six yards out. The relief was instant but it was a rare highlight in an otherwise dull affair against a fairy ordinary opponent, but let’s not be fooled here, Benfica will go up a gear for the return and have the potential to reverse the deficit and steal the tie.
Arteta had fielded a side that looked adventurous and exciting but the glimpses of its potential were all too few and it left the viewer slightly baffled and confused. In the meantime, Arsenal have the unenviable job of trying to derail the Manchester City juggernaut at the weekend.
As we started the piece, so shall it end, chances need to be taken if they present themselves, Aubameyang and Arsenal can’t afford another unproductive dress rehearsal at the highest level with City six times the opponent Benfica were here.