BENFICA 1 (Fernandes 55 pen)
ARSENAL 1 (Saka 57)
MIKEL ARTETA claims to have dreamt about lifting the Europa League to follow his first season FA Cup success with another trophy at the end of the season. There is a long way to go and better teams to beat than Benfica but this result and performance showed they have nothing to fear at this level, but themselves.
Arsenal could and should have put this tie to bed and will regret many a missed opportunity, but Bukayo Saka’s away goal in response to a Pizzi penalty for Benfica means they start next week’s return as favourites to go through
These two clubs are traditionally expected to compete in the Champions League, but both have fallen from their perch and at times it showed in the standard of football.
Only Real Madrid have played in the Champions League more times than Benfica and Arsenal are not far behind. Their respective league form, where both teams are off the pace, means they probably need to win this competition to get a seat back at the top table for next season.
Arteta went for it by naming the same attacking side that beat Leeds at the weekend – the first time Arsenal have had an unchanged line-up since September 2018!
Benfica had some familiar faces too. Jan Vertonghen, a Tottenham veteran of 14 North London derbies, lined up in a five-man defence alongside his fellow 33-year-old Nicolas Otamendi, the former Manchester City centre back.
Another familiar figure to Premier League fans was Benfica midfielder Adel Taarabt, formerly of Tottenham too. The Moroccan international has relaunched his career in Portugal as a defensive, all action midfielder.
And Belgian defender Vertonghen showed he was fully aware of the threat of Saka’s tricks and dribbling skills by twice clattering into Arsenal’s young England international in the opening stages.
And the ‘home’ side – playing in the Rome Olympic Stadium to comply with Portugal’s Covid rules while Arsenal’s home tie next Thursday will be in Athens) – seemed happy to let Arsenal have most of the ball and soak up the pressure.
The tactic of Benfica boss Jorge Jesus, deliberate or otherwise, was surprising for a side desperate to do well in this competition at a time when they are not challenging for their domestic league title as is expected of them.
And it so nearly worked in Arsenal’s favour when Aubameyang had an open goal with just under 20 minutes gone. A cute Dani Ceballos pass sprung Hector Bellerin and the Spanish full back squared the ball perfectly to his captain, only for the usually clinical striker to side foot wide from close range. It was a jaw-dropping miss.
Only time will tell how much Arsenal will rue that miss as they were otherwise regularly caught out by Benfica’s effective offside trap.
Benfica eventually showed some attacking intent as they won a corner after half an hour and Nunez had a bouncing shot soon after that Bern Leno could only smother at his second attempt.
That was their best chance of a fairly uneventful first half, although they did look better the longer the game went on. And they were too well organised for an Arsenal side that struggled to take full advantage of their greater possession despite some nice touches and movement for Martin Odegaard in his first European appearance on loan from Real Madrid.
Arsenal were again superior after the break with both Emile Smith Rowe and Saka threatening to make the breakthrough.
But it was a shock 55th minute penalty that changed the course of the game when Smith Rowe’s arm was struck by an attempted cross. A VAR check said the Arsenal man was rightly penalised for not having his arms by his side. Benfica captain Pizzi duly scored with a skipping spot kick a la Chelsea’s Jorginho for his seventh goal in the competition. No player has scored more in the Europa to date this season.
Arsenal’s response was dynamic as Saka had the ball in the back of the Benfica net only two minutes later. A brilliant Odegaard pass split the Benfica defence and Cedric had time and space on the left to square the ball for Saka to side foot in from the edge of the six yard area.
Now they had the away goal they went for the away win and Aubameyang flashed a shot inches wide of a post not long after.
Arteta tried to further strengthen his side by sending on fit again left back Kieran Tierney, sensing a vulnerability in Benfica on that side of the pitch.
The Portuguese defended well and that frustrated Arsenal with their captain failing to show the same clinical finishing he displayed in scoring a weekend hat-trick against Leeds. He could easily have had another three last night.
In a rare move for Arteta, he responded by taking Aubameyang off for Nicolas Pepe as he made a late double change by also sending on Gabriel Martinelli for a weary Smith Rowe.
He will be hoping they are saving their best stuff for Sunday’s match against Manchester City – and then the second leg.
Benfica: Leite 7; Verissimo 6 (Machado 85), Otamendi 6, Vertonghen 6; Goncalves, Weigl, Taarabt (Pires 77), Grimaldo 6; Pizzi 6 (Soares 64), Nunez 6 (Seferovic 64), Waldschmidt 5 (Joao Ferreira 45). Subs: Svilar, Odysseas, Gilberto, Nuno Tavares, Gabriel, Chiquinho, Everton, Cervi, Pedrinho, Rafa.
Arsenal: Leno 6; Bellerin 6, Luiz 6, Gabriel 6, Cedric 6 (Tierney 64); Ceballos 7 (Elneny 90), Xhaka 6; Saka 7, Odegaard 8 (Willian 90), Smith Rowe 7 (Martinelli 77); Aubameyang 6 (Pepe 77) Subs:Ryan, Hein, Chambers, Holding, Pablo Mari, Lacazette, Nketiah.
Referee: Cuneyt Cakır (Turkey) 6