Aubameyang rescues Arsenal with late Europa League winner against Benfica

Nick Ames
·4-min read
<span>Photograph: Antonis Nikolopoulos/AP</span>
Photograph: Antonis Nikolopoulos/AP

With their season on the line, Arsenal somehow navigated a tightrope. Defeat to Benfica would have been catastrophic, banishing them to the purgatory of fighting for scraps in the Premier League’s mid-table positions until May. Now they retain a purpose and it was a redemptive night, in particular, for the player who has hauled them from trouble time and again.

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A year ago Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang had missed horribly at the death against Olympiakos, confirming a round of 32 exit that felt entirely self-inflicted. In the first leg of this tie he had squandered three presentable chances and it was hard to shake the feeling Arsenal would pay the price again, particularly when two Dani Ceballos mistakes gave Benfica an iron grip on proceedings as they entered the final half-hour. But they pulled themselves back into contention and, if Aubameyang and company go all the way to securing Champions League football through this competition, the captain’s 87th minute winner may be seen as the moment they went from bust to boom.

At 2-1 down on the night, Arsenal needed to score twice if Benfica were not to complete their heist. Kieran Tierney quickly offered them a shaft of light but it would have not have been enough because, even though the game was contested in Piraeus, away goals would have taken their usual heavy toll. So their best two players seized the initiative and, just as the Portuguese side were beginning to look relatively serene, applied the decisive wound.

Aubameyang had already been set up beautifully by Bukayo Saka for an opener that, as the night went on, looked destined to be a bittersweet memory. But now Saka shifted the ball onto his left foot from his perch on the right and, as he so often does, found an immaculate final ball. It was floated to an area beyond the back post from which Aubameyang could hardly miss. His header was clinical and, after an unnecessary VAR check, ruled to be legal. Disaster had been averted and ghosts slain.

“That was the first thing that came through my mind when he scored,” Mikel Arteta said of the weight Aubameyang carried from those previous aberrations. “This is the beautiful thing about football: that if you always keep going you are able to put it right. It’s great to see the way he reacted. He’s been upset and trying to be better, not just feeling sad for himself.”

Kieran Tierney sparked Arsenal&#x002019;s comeback after equalising in the second half.
Kieran Tierney sparked Arsenal’s comeback after equalising in the second half. Photograph: Thanassis Stavrakis/AP

What a strange season it has been for Arsenal’s top scorer, who can never be said to have found a vein of sustained form but has now converted seven times in as many games. His first of this one came after a strong start from the nominal hosts and owed plenty to Saka’s brilliance. The 19-year-old has countless strings to his bow and this time channelled his best David Silva impression, slicing infield before reading Aubameyang’s run and flipping a sharp 90-degree pass into his path. It was not his easiest opening of recent weeks but he kept his cool, facing down the goalkeeper Helton and dinking a deliberate, drifting finish into the far corner.

“He is really fatigued, he’s had a lot of minutes but I asked him to go again and the boy has done it,” Arteta said in response to Saka’s latest star turn, which entirely reflected the level he has shown all winter.

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Arsenal looked comfortable but then Ceballos needlessly fouled Julian Weigl and Diogo Gonçalves was given a chance, albeit a tough one, to send Benfica in level. He curled an inch-perfect free-kick up, over and past Bernd Leno; it was all square and, even at the time, somewhat inevitable Arteta’s side would go through agonies from here.

They were horrified just after the hour when Helton gathered Martin Ødegaard’s corner, launched the ball upfield at speed and watched Ceballos badly misjudge an attempted header back to Leno. Rafa Silva had gambled on something going awry and stole in, passing into an empty net.

“I am especially happy about Dani, because he lives this profession like it is the most important thing in his life,” Arteta said when reflecting on the Houdini act that bailed the midfielder out. “Out of a difficult situation you create a really nice moment.”

Tierney set the stage for it when he worked an angle after good work from the substitute Willian, raking his shot across Helton. Then, at last, came Aubameyang’s potentially transformative moment. “Last year was a very difficult one to swallow,” Arteta said. “To have some beautiful moments to celebrate together is really important.” Now Arsenal need to conjure a few more.