Neither Arsenal nor Benfica felt quite at home in Rome, but at least Mikel Arteta saw his side’s output count double. They deserved to leave with some kind of advantage and it was secured by a close-range away goal from Bukayo Saka, who quickly equalised after Pizzi had scored a penalty for Benfica early in the second half. There will be the nagging concern it should have been greater, though, and would have been if Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang had not endured an unusually wasteful night.
The captain had ignited his season with a hat-trick against Leeds at the weekend and, while that kind of contribution was long overdue, his travails have centred on a lack of chances rather than his ability to convert them.
Here, though, he had three and they included a first-half sitter that should have offered a platform to put functional opponents to bed. Instead the tie remains finely balanced before the rematch next week in Athens, which will determine whether Arsenal are tormented by Greek ghosts once again.
It was in the home game last year against Olympiakos, whose stadium will host the second leg, that Aubameyang’s late miss condemned Arsenal to a devastating exit at this stage of the Europa League. A repeat outcome would threaten to strip their current campaign of any real meaning but that would have looked distinctly unlikely had he converted Héctor Bellerín’s 19th-minute cross. The right-back had sprinted beyond Benfica’s defence and laid the ball on a plate seven yards out; the only explanation can be that Aubameyang took his eye off it, his sidefooted shot running well wide when anyone would have expected the net to bulge.
“These things happen,” Arteta said. “He was on the end of the biggest chances we had tonight. He was a real threat and he was unlucky not to score two or three, because in normal circumstances that would have been the case.”
Aubameyang’s other two sights came after Saka had scored the leveller, which briefly opened up a largely dull game. The more difficult chance brought an effort drilled narrowly wide from 18 yards after Martin Ødegaard, whose delicately weighted passes were the night’s most agreeable feature, had played him in but he should certainly have done better when a marvellous Gabriel ball sent him through 15 minutes from time. Rather than take a clear shot on his left foot he attempted to check on to his right and was thwarted by the debutant defender Verissimo. Moments later he was replaced by Nicolas Pépé; he was clearly out of sorts and, given he is still working his way back into rhythm after an absence enforced by illness to his mother, it is fair to cut him some slack.
“It’s all to play for and I think we should be in a much better position,” Arteta said. “We weren’t ruthless enough in the opponents’ box and the disappointing thing as well was the way we conceded.”
Benfica’s lead had hardly been signposted in a first half that, beyond its headline aberration, was turgid. Arsenal had controlled possession but rarely moved the ball quickly enough; a stodgy Benfica, their defenders including Nicolás Otamendi and Jan Vertonghen, were happy to play roulette with a high line and caught their nominal visitors offside seven times before the interval.
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The pace quickened after they re‑emerged, however, and when Diogo Goncalves crossed following a shot corner routine Emile Smith Rowe leapt with outstretched arms at close quarters in a way that spelt trouble. The ball may have struck torso before limb, but that was inconclusive: in today’s unsparingly pernickety climate it was a nailed-on spot kick, as VAR confirmed, and Pizzi dispatched confidently.
Arteta was outwardly more concerned with the sloppy concession of the corner than the whys and wherefores of the penalty. His players did, at least, dust themselves down in a manner that pleased him. “It was a great reaction, a great goal,” he said.
Saka had dragged a decent opening wide before Smith Rowe’s misdemeanour but made amends straightaway by jabbing in a perfect left-sided cross from Cédric Soares, who had been put in position by a needle-threading pass from Ødegaard.
“He’s in a great moment, he’s full of confidence,” said Arteta of Saka, who has scored five times in his past 12 appearances. “His form is probably the highest it’s been since I’ve been here.”
Rafa Silva demanded a flying save of Bernd Leno after that but a full‑strength Arsenal, unchanged from their domestic lineup in an unprecedented decision from Arteta, were otherwise untroubled. They must now hope the same is true on Thursday.
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