Arsenal draw 1-1 with Benfica in the first leg of their round of 32 Europa League clash at Stadio Olimpico on Thursday evening.
Crashing out of the competition at this stage last season, Mikel Arteta opted to field the same lineup that beat Leeds in the Premier League, with Martin Odgeaard retaining his place as the Gunners aimed to hit the ground running in their two-legged tie.
Arsenal controlled the entirety of the first half with Benfica being admittedly awful throughout the 45 minutes. Opting to go with five at the back, they risked a high line that continued to catch Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang out.
Knowing they would have most joy in wide areas, it was precisely there where Arsenal carved open the best chance of the half as Hector Bellerin’s low cross needing only tapping in. Somehow, Aubameyang completely fluffed his opportunity and put the ball wide.
Continuing to look the most dangerous in the game, Arsenal still struggled for fluency in their play and Dani Ceballos’ touch-heavy style slowed the play down considerably.
They were nearly made to pay for that glorious miss when Granit Xhaka’s wayward ball across the box fed Adel Taarabt, whose cross into the box was well blocked by Ceballos.
It was then Emile Smith Rowe’s turn to block a cross. Unfortunately, with his arm. In the penalty box. Pizzi didn’t miss.
The lead last less than three minutes though, as Bukayo Saka showed Aubameyang how to do it by tapping home from close range. Aubameyang had a couple of opportunities later on after being well found en route to goal but couldn’t find his finishing touch, and the game finished all square.
Arsenal Goalkeeper & Defenders Ratings
Bernd Leno (GK) – 7/10 – Made a couple of solid saves in and around a few simple ones. Distribution was good on the night and confident on crosses.
Hector Bellerin (RB) – 8/10 – Linked up excellently with Bukayo Saka down the right flank with some superb give-and-go moves, always looking to run beyond and should easily have got an assist for the Aubameyang miss.
Some of his crossing wasn’t perfect and the decision to bypass Martin Odegaard in midfield sometimes cause a few groans, but his overall performance was strong on Thursday.
David Luiz (CB) – 7/10 – Hardly did much wrong and was an assured presence at the back with his fellow countryman. Could he has released the ball better and quicker? Yes, as is usually the criticism of David Luiz.
Gabriel (CB) – 8/10 – Good distribution and weight of pass out from the back, which is no easy feat on such a sticky, wet pitch. He pressed the Benfica strikers well when he had to and held the line well in defence. Rarely put a foot, or a pass, wrong.
Cedric Soares (LB) – 7/10 – Didn’t allow Diogo Gonçalves any joy down the left side but fell foul to a similar issue as Bellerin in occasion in not finding Odegaard in space, despite working acres in central areas.
Got in advanced areas well and found Saka well with his cut-back for the goal.
Arsenal Midfielders Ratings
Dani Ceballos (CM) – 7/10 – So tough to judge. On the one hand, he did well in covering runners, breaking play and moving forward. However, the style Arsenal reverted to, in particular during the first half, was the old-Ceballos approach of failing to understand the economy of touches and always playing backwards. Using him as this deep focal point when players needed to be found in forward areas soon returned to the fore.
But again, that isn’t necessarily his fault, but a byproduct of his involvement. Most confusing of all, he played so well. His tracking back, breaking play and forward passes were effective throughout, even if there were too many touches. Based on his display, he was very good.
Granit Xhaka (CM) – 6/10 – Could so easily have given a goal away and was guilty of a few needless fouls in areas of no real danger. Not his best night, misplaced too many passes and invited unnecessary pressure, even if he provided a fine covering tackle on occasion.
Martin Odegaard (AM) – 8/10 – Some of his touches and defence-splitting passes were excellent, especially for the Gunners’ goal, finding the space and slaloming his way out of dangerous areas.
He wasn’t found enough, if anything. The spaces he picked up were threatening areas had the decision to stay wide not been on the agenda. Did all the simple elements excellently.
Arsenal Forwards Ratings
Bukayo Saka (RW) – 7/10 – Another lively, all-action display where with every Jan Vertonghen late challenge he seemed to grow in energy. Lovely link up with Bellerin down the right and caused Benfica all kinds of problems. It wasn’t his best Arsenal performance, but he posed a continuous threat and his inclusion was merited.
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (ST) – 5/10 – He had to score that. Beyond the miss, nothing came off for Aubameyang who was offside more times than anyone can remember and playing like the antithesis of someone who’d just scored a Premier League hat-trick. Importantly, though, is that he got the chances. Leeds was no rare outing.
Emile Smith Rowe (LW) – 7/10 – Acting as the wall-pass option down the left flank, he constantly offered an option down that side and looked even more threatening when Tierney came on. Runs himself into the ground and hopefully he gets a rest against Manchester City.
Good that he came off with 15 to spare. Lovely movement as ever.
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