It turns out I was wrong, Arsenal could afford to make mistakes and still make it through last night’s crunch second-leg clash against Benfica last night.
I wrote at length yesterday about how there was no room for error for Mikel Arteta’s men if they harboured ambitions of progressing in the Europa League but it seems the message was entirely lost on the team itself as they did their utmost to hand the tie to the ‘visitors’.
After gifting Benfica a penalty from nothing in the first leg in Rome, I was certain any further mistakes would prove terminal but, as if to prove me wrong, the Gunners came up with not one but two more silly errors to put the Portuguese side on the cusp of qualification.
With half an hour to go and facing a two-goal deficit in Athens, I confess to having abandoned all hope. As appallingly bad as Benfica were across the two legs, I couldn’t see a way we could conjour up two goals goals in 30 minutes when we had toiled for about 150 minutes for our first two.
Oh ye of little faith!
Sometimes there isn’t much you can do but shrug your shoulders and enjoy the moment, however bizarre, and last night’s comeback win was one of those moments. From the pit of despair we were all left elated, the fragmented pieces of our season sellotaped together for a little bit longer.
If we replayed those last 30 minutes another 100 times, I doubt we’d produce the same sort of result on another five occasions, however bad the opposition were and Benfica were bad.
Where they deserve credit is in the execution of their game plan. I personally detest the way they attempted to play across the two legs but there is no denying that it was effective and, frankly, should have seen them through. They set up with the sole intention of spoiling the game for as long as possible and disrupting us in all areas of the pitch.
Jorge Jesus gambled it all on our profligacy and a few set pieces and it worked remarkably well, almost to a tee. Clearly, he is wily campaigner and that was something we probably all overlooked as we tore them to pieces in the first 20 minutes of the first leg.
That said, you have to admire the courage in the face of adversity and the ability of our boys to dust themselves down time and again. The disallowed goals across the two legs felt cruel and you could have forgiven the team feeling a sense of helplessness when mistake after mistake was punished. How typical was it that, having done nothing all night, Benfica pulled it back to 1-1 with a free-kick sent from the gods?
The Gunners were not to be denied, though, and their persistence when faced with a six man back line holding an extremely high line was admirable. For all their spoiling, Arsenal were still able to fashion some excellent chances against Benfica but boy did we have to be inch-perfect to earn them.
In the end, I was proved wrong and I couldn’t be happier about that. However, better opposition won’t throw away the sort of advantage Benfica had, we’ve seen as much in the Premier League this season. We have to find a way to cut out the mistakes and silly errors because sooner or later, it really will cost us and, worst of all, I will have been proved right.