Written by Daniel Hogarty.
An evening of squandered chances had set up, in my opinion, the most terrifying night of football as an Arsenal fan I had faced since the FA Cup Final. Just because I trust the process, as Laca’s boots had signalled us to do and trust the manager, doesn’t mean I had any money or confidence on the outcome of this game. (And that is coming from a frequent flutterer).
Due to the blatant resting of players on Sunday, I had a very good idea of what Mikel’s starting eleven would be. The fact I knew this going into the game was about as reassuring as Big Sam is to divers.
Nervous, cagey and each pass seeming to be placed with as much risk as crossing the road on a zebra crossing. The midfield were obviously vicariously playing through their former selves as they were knocked out at this stage last year at the Emirates.
LENO 6 – Leno was busy. Not in the sense that he had multiple efforts on target to negotiate. But because his defensive unit comprised of dweedle-blind and dweedle-deaf thought it would be a great idea to stare at each and every long ball to come there way as if it was some wondrous shooting star, not once thinking It was a football worth clearing! He couldn’t and not many really could’ve got close to either goal and so it won’t be his pride but his voice hurting tonight from shouting at his wandering pillocks all match.
BELLERIN 7 – Bellerin was surprisingly positive in parts although the idea of overlapping Saka seems to a foreign language to whatever London/Spanish lingo he’s devised over the years. One good cross to Kieran’s seven, I’m sure he’ll take that.
GABRIEL 3 – Gabriel has a fantastic block on him accompanied with a scything range of passing. Unfortunately, the occasion seemed to have got the better of him and the decline of the latter called for a truck load of the former.
DAVID LUIZ 4 – David really wasn’t terrible. In fact I acknowledge I am being harsh on our centre backs, neither were at fault for the goals. However, I am (and will be for a while) disgusted with the clumsy, circus show of a defence from singular long balls. One after another, it was like the blind leading the blind.
KIERAN TIERNEY 8 – Where to begin with my flying Scotsman. KT was obviously rusty and possibly nervous going into the first 15 minutes. A couple of, by his standard, kooky crosses landing in the stands after getting himself into good positions. The cobwebs were briskly blown away after that and he had the entire left on lock. Dangerous balls, patient link up, aggressive one-on-one behaviour (Hector’s worst nightmare) and a finish if you squinted, really hard, you’d believe it was the golden boy from Dortmund himself.
DANI CEBALLOS 4 – Dani had a couple of amateur moments within an uninspiring midfield. It just so happened that today they resulted in goals. Funnily enough, his best asset was his defence and the breaking up play today. You could sense the tension between Granit and Dani, neither playing a pass that would dare split a line or catch Benifca off guard.
GRANIT XHAKA 6 – Granit was Granit if that makes sense. Granit has shown moments since the Burnley game where Granit could be more than Granit, almost learning from the forward thinking Partey. However, the importance of not conceding a “home” goal severely hampered half of his brain as each pass was like he had an internal debate as whether to pass it left/right or actually forward. The time taken for his synapses to spark and opt forward, Martin was sealed off and our patient recycle ensued.
SMITH ROWE 6 – Emile had a tough one. I don’t think that position suits him at all. It worked versus Leeds due to the tactics of the day, however a winger he is not. It’s hard to play on the turn out there and I don’t blame him for not really getting a look in today. Worked tirelessly like he always does and I’m just glad he’s getting game time and vital experience.
ODEGAARD 6 – He played a couple of nice passes at times, but generally speaking struggling to really get into a groove. He was a little too slow on the ball and decent seem quite on the same wavelength as his teammates at times. I’m hoping the best is still yet to come from him
AUBAMEYANG 8 – Auba seemed right up for it. Courteous of Jamie Redknapp, Auba had a lot of point proving to do and boy did he deliver. A delightful few finishes with one being struck off from VAR and an immense show of leadership from his pressing from the front, Auba almost gets my man of the match.
SAKA 9 – Saka you sly dog. It was as if he realised the defenders were giving him that extra half-metre because of how strong and slippery he can be and utilised it by getting his head up. Both passes were world-class and if you can’t rant about a young British talent anymore then I don’t want to live here. I’m expecting a drop in form, a sag in scoring or assisting but it never comes. Consistency, humility and deadly chemistry with our captain. My man of the match.
ARTETA 6: I think Arteta was really bailed out by Saka today. We didn’t play with much identity or strategy in the game. We also didn’t see up for it to be honest. Whilst the players have to take responsibility for the lack of urgency, the manager must do so as well. In fairness, his substitutions helped change the game. When I saw Willian coming on I thougt the tie was over. But, Willian picked out Tierney very well for our second of the night and generally caused Benfica a lot of problems in the second half. Bringing Partey on was a stroke of genius too; he really helped bring control to our team and enabled us to sustain pressure on Benfica by break up their counter-attacks as we chased the game
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