There’s no room for surprises tonight as Arsenal face off against Benfica in a winner-takes-all Europa Leg second leg.
Having squandered numerous opportunities to take a commanding lead in the first leg last Thursday, the Gunners were stung when a ball blasted at Emile Smith Rowe in the box was adjudged handball and a penalty given. The resulting spot-kick was duly dispatched and, having done precious little in the match up until then, the ‘hosts’ took the lead.
In the end, the Gunners railed to equalise but it could as easily ended in a disappointing defeat in a game they had dominated. There can be no such repeat tonight because any mistakes could prove fatal (in football terms at least).
That first leg was the archetypal demonstration of how missed opportunities can prove doubly costly against an opponent that strives with all its energy to force that one moment that can be turned to maximum advantage, be it an opportunity to dive, a dangerous set piece, or a ball blasted at a hand from close range. It’s a high-risk strategy and one that relies as much on good fortune as good organisation but it is a tactic that ultimately served Benfica well, they are, after all, still well and truly in the tie.
I wouldn’t expect, therefore, for the Portuguese to stray far from that tactic when they travel to Rome for the second leg. If, by some combination of skill and dumb luck, they can keep Arsenal from scoring in the first half, they can pour all their energy into forcing an opening in the second period. Though our away goal means we currently have the advantage, it only takes a moment for momentum to shift entirely.
Despite being the far superior side, this second leg feels infinitely more dangerous for Arsenal, who have a great deal more to lose. We can’t afford to crash out of the competition this early again, particularly after the debacle of last season against Olympiakos.
To that end, I fear Arteta will have to field as strong a side as he can muster and that means no chance of rest for Bukayo Saka and perhaps even a run out for Thomas Partey – both players who could do with some extra time to rest and recover. Winning our group was supposed to mean a favourable draw in this round but, of all the draws we could have pulled, Benfica was among the most difficult.
And, with Leicester to face in the early slot on Sunday, there seems to be no let up for the Gunners as they battle to keep the season alive on two fronts. At times amidst this reason run, it has felt like a victory just to get from one match to the next without any new injuries.
In truth, there will be precious room for rest until the summer so, for what remains of this season, the focus will just be on rotating, snatching rest where available, and crossing our fingers.
Tonight should be an opportunity to take control of this match and play at our tempo. Benfica will look to slow us down where they can and make it a physical affair but there’s no need for us to be drawn into that sort of nonsense. We have the technical quality to pull this team apart and keep them running for 90 minutes and, if we are even half as sharp as we should have been last week, we should be out of sight by half-time.
After a run of games in which we have largely gifted the advantage to our opponents (Benfica, Wolves, Villa, and City), there can be room for mistakes again tonight. The only surprise I want to see is too many goals.