Last night, when Benfica’s Rafa Silva capitalised on Dani Ceballos’ second significant mistake of the evening to round Bernd Leno and score, Arsenal‘s season was hanging by a thread.
Suddenly, a tie which they were firmly in control of up until the final minutes of the first-half had blown up in their face. Now, with half-an-hour left, they needed two goals to save their season.
Spare a thought for Mikel Arteta, who watching on from the sidelines must have been dreading the inevitable onslaught that would have followed last-32 elimination in the Europa League. Job on the line? Progress this season really would have looked bleak.
Arsenal boss Mikel Arteta would have been fearing the worst with his side needing two goals
Out of both domestic cups, 11th in the Premier League – Europe’s secondary competition represented a last chance for the Gunners this season. And we’re only in February.
Fortunately for the Spaniard his most trusted senior players stepped up when needed most, on neutral territory in Athens. A lifeline for the Arsenal boss.
First Kieran Tierney – a shining light in an otherwise largely-forgetful six months – drilled home an equaliser before star teenager Bukayo Saka laid a free header on a plate for captain-turn-saviour Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang to spare the Gunners’ blushes with three minutes left on the clock.
But the Gunners fought back to beat Benfica and take their place in the Europa League last-16
MIKEL ARTETA AT ARSENAL
- Premier League: 8th (2019-20), 11th (current)
- FA Cup: Won (2019-20), R4 (2020-21)
- League Cup: QF (2020-21)
- Europa League: R32 (2019-20), R16-(current)
The celebrations at full-time told you everything you needed to know. The relief was palpable amongst the entire squad, who live to fight another day in the last-16 kicking off next month.
Arteta will be the most relieved of them all though.
It’s only two months ago that his side, short of confidence after a wretched start to the season, got the wheels back turning and put in a string of decent showings.
Before that, it was Arsenal’s worst start to a top-flight season in 46 years. Hard to fathom, but talk of relegation even started to surface.
Meanwhile Aubameyang, who was so clinical and effective in the Gunners’ FA Cup triumph at the back end of last season, could not hit a barn door let alone the back of the net.
But now, the Gabonese has got his finishing touch back, as exemplified by his two goals on Thursday.
‘The last few days after the game in Rome against them, where he missed three or four opportunities and normally they are three goals for him,’ said Arteta afterwards.
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang scored twice on Thursday to guide the Gunners to the next round
‘He needed to react and it was great to see the way he reacted is being upset and trying to be better – and not just feeling sad for yourself in this moment.
‘This is the beautiful thing about football, if you keep going you always have the chance to put it right.’
As for Saka, he again has shown no signs of his form plummeting.
He set up both of Aubameyang’s goals, the first with a perfectly weighted through ball and the second a whipped cross to the back post. He also scored the crucial away goal in Rome last week.
Bukayo Saka continues to be Arsenal’s key creative influence as they strive for glory in Europe
Are Arsenal too reliant on the creativity of the 19-year-old? Maybe. But while he keeps performing, they stand a chance.
Even ex-Gunners captain Cesc Fabregas heralded him a ‘game changer’.
Now, Champions League football next season is still a fervent possibility. A long way to go, but the route remains open.
In a way, it’s similar to the scenario Unai Emery faced two years ago. Back in 2018-19, his whole season eventually hinged on the Europa League final against Chelsea, in order to qualify for Europe’s premier club competition.
Arsenal fight to live another day but will return to Athens to face Olympiacos in the last-16
They were humbled 4-1 in Baku. Six months later, Emery was gone. Will this Spaniard go the same way?
Ironically, it’ll be a familiar opponent in the last-16. Following Friday’s draw, Arsenal will return to Athens to face Olympiacos, who knocked them out of the competition last season in a match memorable for Aubameyang’s glaring late miss.
No such chances can afford to be wasted this time round. A deep run in Europe – ending with glory on May 22 in Gdansk – is the only prize which can save Arsenal’s season.
Unai Emery’s Arsenal lost in the 2019 Europa League final but need to go one better this season