Match statistics: Benfica 1-1 Arsenal
Bukayo Saka may be just 19 years old, but Arsenal’s prodigious young talent is already well versed in bailing his side out.
With Arsenal’s season crumbling in the Premier League, the winger has taken it upon himself to drag Mikel Arteta’s side up the table with his superb performances since Christmas.
Andwith their European hopes hanging in the balance, having found themselves 1-0 behind against Benfica in Rome, he popped up with the vital away goal to salvage what could be a crucial 1-1 draw in the first leg of the Europa League last-32 tie.
It was Saka’s sixth goal of an increasingly impressive campaign and certainly his most important.
Arsenal crashed out of the competition at this stage last season when they were shocked by Olympiacos at the Emirates Stadium and Arteta knows that he can’t afford for that to happen again.
But despite dominating for large periods,they found themselves in trouble having wasted some glorious chances to put the game to bed early.
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, fresh from his hat-trick against Leeds on Sunday, had a night to forget – wasting two gilt-edged opportunities to take his Arenal tally to 82 goals in all competitions.
The Gabon international somehow fired wide from point-blank range in the first half, having been picked out by Hector Bellerin’s cross, and failed to hit the target again after the break having been played through by Martin Odegaard
Those looked to be costly misses when Benfica were awarded a penalty for a handball by Emile Smith Rowe, which was converted by Pizzi on 55 minutes.
But just when Arsenal needed someone to drag them up from the mire, Saka stepped up to ensure the Gunnerswould not go into next Thursday night’s second leg in Athens with a deficit to overhaul.
The Arsenal youngster was in the right place at the right time to turn in a cross by Cedric Soares, who had been picked out by a delicious pass from Odegaard which had opened up the Benfica backline.
Saka now has 10 goal involvements this season, six goals and four assists. Only Alexandre Lacazette (13) and Aubameyang (12) have more.
It hasbeen a largely disappointing campaign for Arteta’s side, and he has undoubtedly been the brightest light.
He is already a leader despite his tender years and he showed that again in Rome when some of his senior team-mates around him fluffed their lines.
Even with Saka’s equaliser, however, Arsenal will look back on the game as a missed opportunity.
Benfica were there for the taking and Arteta’s side had the opportunities to make the second leg a relative formality, but now they have little room for error if they want to avoid a last-32 exit for the second successive season.
Next week’s game in Athens issandwiched between matches against Manchester City and Leicster in the Premier League.
The fact Arteta named an unchanged side in Rome for the first time in his managerial career showed how much he wanted to put the tie to bed early.
But now he must take his team to Greece and get the job done the hard way after a frustrating evening of wasted opportunities in theStadio Olimpico.
Source : goal.com