There won’t be a more disappointed Arsenal player today than Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.
For all the Gunners’ huffing and puffing in the draw against Benfica last night, it was the Gabonese striker’s profligacy in front of goal that ultimately cost Mikel Arteta’s men victory and the prospect of a much more comfortable second leg next week in Athens.
As it was, Auba was woefully errant and at least two gilt-edge chances, along with a few pretty presentable ones, went begging on a night when victory was there for the taking.
That’s not to say it was a sparkling performance from Arsenal, far from it. For large parts of the match, Arteta’s men were frustrated in their attempts to play and create by a Benfica side set up to spoil anything and everything but the Gunners will certainly feel aggrieved that they didn’t take more.
After a stellar display against Leeds United last Sunday, Auba looked to have lost his touch. His first miss, in particular, was a chance you’d hope a centre back would put away let alone one of Europe’s top strikers. Six yards out, with the goal wide open and the ball delivered on a plate, there really was no excuse not to score. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that it was more difficult to miss than it was to hit the back of the net.
And in a game in which your opponent’s only ambition is to stop you playing – and nothing else – quality chances can be hard to come by. It is imperative, therefore, that when they do come along, you stick them away or you leave yourself exposed to the type of sucker-punch we experienced last night and have done time and again over the years.
Having done nothing all game, Benfica were handed an extraordinary piece of good fortune when a hopeful cross smashed from close range into Emile Smith Rowe’s outstretched arm. In today’s game, you can’t have any complaints about the decision to give the spot-kick, as ridiculous as the rule is. Having created nothing and shown no ambition, it was a real boon for the ‘hosts’ and one I fully expected they would do everything in their power to sit on and hold.
As it was, some excellent play from us was finally rewarded with a goal some five minutes later as Bukayo Saka applied the finish to Cedric’s cross. Further chances fell Auba’s way after the equaliser but, as they went awry, you got the feeling Arsenal and Benfica agreed to settle for the draw. The last quarter of the match played out in hugely frustrating, turgid fashion, with neither side really committed to hunting for a winner.
In the end, that was perhaps a wise choice from Arteta given the advantage that an away goal brings but, make no mistake, this was a real opportunity missed. Benfica are not in any way, shape or form a good side. They’re awful, lack cohesion, cutting edge and quality. They relied on deep defending, time-wasting, and good fortune and, on the night, it almost feel perfectly for them.
In the return leg next week, Arsenal will have chances to score again and, hopefully, put the tie beyond doubt but that job should arguably already be done. The captain has put away numerous more difficult chances in his career so his frustration will be especially acute. He’ll need to dust himself down and prepare to go again this weekend when we face the unenviable task of hosting Manchester City at the Emirates, a game in which, if we get any chances at all, he’ll need to bury them.