Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang rescued Arsenal’s Europa League campaign from the jaws of defeat as his late winner secured a dramatic 3-2 victory over Benfica in Greece.
Arsenal were staring down the barrel of elimination at the round-of-32 stage for the second successive season after Diogo Goncalves’ stunning first-half free-kick and Rafa Silva’s second – after a costly Dani Ceballos error – gifted Benfica the advantage after Aubameyang’s opener.
The collapse left Arsenal with half an hour to salvage their season, and they rose to the challenge in thrilling fashion.
Kieran Tierney’s venomous strike sparked the comeback, which was sealed with three minutes remaining when Aubameyang peeled away to the back post to head in Bukayo Saka’s cross, and Arsenal into the last 16 of the Europa League after a 4-3 aggregate win.
Arsenal: Leno (6), Bellerin (6), Luiz (6), Gabriel (6), Tierney (8), Ceballos (4), Xhaka (6), Odegaard (6), Smith Rowe (6), Aubameyang (8), Saka (8).
Subs: Lacazette (5), Willian (6), Partey (5), Chambers (n/a), Elneny (n/a).
Benfica: Leite (6), Verissimo (5), Otamendi (5), Vertonghen (5), Goncalves (7), Taarabt (5), Weigl (6), Silva (7), Grimaldo (6), Pizzi (6), Seferovic (5).
Subs: Everton (5), Gabriel (5), Nunez (5), Waldschmidt (n/a), Tavares (n/a).
Man of the match: Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang
Aubameyang to the rescue for Arsenal
With their hopes of a top-four finish floundering and their chances of domestic cup silverware over, it was make or break for Arsenal at Olympiakos’ Georgios Karaiskakis Stadium, the stand-in venue for their Europa League round-of-32 second leg in light of the UK’s strict coronavirus travel rules.
But despite being almost 2000 miles away from the Emirates Stadium, the Gunners were at home, quickly outnumbering Benfica in midfield and establishing control of the contest.
In a game of season-defining importance, Arsenal nerves were settled on 21 minutes when Aubameyang latched onto Saka’s perfectly-weighted reverse pass and floated the opener into the Benfica net to give the Gunners, after a VAR review, the lead in the tie for the first time.
- Gabriel Magalhaes, David Luiz, Dani Ceballos and Emile Smith Rowe was recalled as Arsenal made four changes from Sunday’s defeat to Manchester City.
- Haris Seferovic and Rafa Silva returned as Benfica made two changes from the first leg in Rome.
Former Tottenham defender Jan Vertonghen headed Benfica’s first chance harmlessly over as Arsenal cruised towards a half-time lead, but they were stopped in their tracks by a moment of individual brilliance.
After Ceballos was penalised for a needless foul on midfielder Julian Weigl, Goncalves whipped an unstoppable free-kick into the top corner of Bernd Leno’s goal to hand Benfica a crucial away goal with his first for the club.
Aubameyang had the ball in the Benfica net early in the second half in almost identical circumstances to his first-half strike, but this time the Gunners captain fell foul of a VAR offside review.
Things took a turn for the worse on the hour when Ceballos’ calamitous defensive header released Rafa Silva through on the Arsenal goal, and the Portuguese registered Benfica’s second away goal of the tie which left the Gunners needing to score two unanswered goals.
Benfica looked to have secured an unassailable lead but Arsenal had other ideas, with Tierney’s fierce strike into the far corner breathing life back into the Gunners’ campaign six minutes later.
Substitute Darwin Nunez was unable to punish two defensive mix-ups involving David Luiz and Gabriel Magalhaes as Arsenal’s hope of progressing hung perilously by a thread.
But, with three minutes remaining, the Gunners completed their remarkable comeback and once again Saka was the creator, curling a sumptuous ball to the back post which Aubameyang stooped to head in as Arsenal booked their place in Friday’s last-16 draw in the most dramatic of circumstances.
When is the Europa League last-16 draw?
The draw will take place on Friday, February 26 in Nyon’s House of European Football at 12pm UK time. You will be able to follow it across Sky Sports’ digital platforms.
Europa League 20/21: Key dates
- March 11 & 18: Round of 16
- April 8 & 15: Quarter-finals
- April 29 & May 6: Semi-finals
- May 26: Final (Gdansk, Poland)
Arsenal keep Europa League dream alive – Match stats
- Arsenal have reached the last 16 of the UEFA Europa League in three of the four seasons they have appeared in the competition, with the only exception being in 2019-20 (eliminated at the last 32).
- Benfica suffered their first UEFA Europa League defeat since February 2020 against Shakhtar Donetsk (1-2), ending their eight-game unbeaten run in the competition.
- Only Trent Alexander-Arnold (20) has more assists among English players for Premier League clubs in all competitions since the start of last season than Bukayo Saka (18), following his two assists this evening.
- Diogo Gonçalves’ equaliser for Benfica was their first direct free-kick goal in the UEFA Europa League since February 2014 (Nicolás Gaitán v PAOK Salonika).
- Kieran Tierney became the first Scotsman to score for Arsenal in a major European competition since Willie Young against IFK Göteborg in March 1980 in the Cup Winners Cup quarter final.
Man of the Match – Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang has scored in seven of his last eight cup matches for Arsenal (10 goals in total – FA Cup x5, UEFA Europa League x4, Community Shield x1), only failing to net against Benfica in the first leg during this run.
Arsenal travel to Leicester in the Premier League on Sunday at midday, while Benfica host Rio Ave in the Primeira Liga on Monday at 7pm.