Played in Rome’s Olympic Stadium instead of Portugal for Covid-19 reasons, the Gunners were the better side but failed to take a number of first-half chances before falling behind to a Pizzi penalty. However, they responded quickly with Cedric Soares crossing low for England winger Saka to level from close range. The England winger is now determined not to allow his side to suffer the same European fate as last season, when a goal in the last minute of extra time saw Olympiakos advance to the last 16 on away goals at Arsenal’s expense.
Benfica’s penalty was awarded when Emile Smith Rowe was adjudged to have handled in blocking Diogo Goncalves’ cross, with Pizzi converting to take his goal tally to a tournament-high of seven. Fresh from scoring a hat-trick against Leeds in the Premier League, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang had two big chances in the game but inexplicably side-footed wide from close range with the score at 0-0 and then dragged an effort off target at 1-1. In positive news for the Gunners, left-back Kieran Tierney and forward Gabriel Martinelli made welcome returns from injury as second-half substitutes. The second leg is in Athens in a week’s time, sandwiched between two big league fixtures for the Gunners – the visit of Manchester City to the Emirates and a trip to Leicester.
Arsenal have improved in recent weeks, both in performances and results, but such was their inconsistent start to the season, the Europa League probably represents their most realistic route back into the Champions League. The Gunners’ starting XI suggests Mikel Arteta agrees, with the Spaniard naming the same side that began Sunday’s impressive 4-2 win over Leeds at the Emirates. Remarkably, it is the first time Arsenal have named an unchanged XI since September 2018 but it brought with it some of Sunday’s attacking fluency, especially down the right, with Hector Bellerin a constant and energetic menace. What it lacked, though, was similar lethal finishing, most notably from the weekend’s hat-trick hero Aubameyang.
Excuses can be made for why his second chance was spurned, with it being at a tight angle, but not his first. Bellerin’s low cross laid the strike on a plate for the forward but somehow he found a way to put his shot past the post instead of in the net where bit belonged. Thankfully, Saka was sharp enough to finish when required from a similar distance at the other end, the goal his 10th in a Gunners shirt and further evidence of his rapidly growing importance to Arteta’s side. Since the start of last season, the 19-year-old is the youngest Premier League player to have scored 10+ goals and made 10+ assists across all competitions.