Bukayo Saka celebrates scoring for Arsenal against Benfica
Saka now has six goals this season for Arsenal, with Thursday’s his first in this season’s Europa League

Bukayo Saka was on target as Arsenal came from behind to secure a draw in the first leg of their Europa League last-32 tie with Portuguese side Benfica.

Played in Rome’s Olympic Stadium instead of Portugal for Covid-19 reasons, the Gunners were the better side but failed to take a number of first-half chances before falling behind soon after the break.

Emile Smith Rowe was adjudged to have handled in blocking Diogo Goncalves’ cross, leading to a penalty that Pizzi converted to take his goal tally to a tournament-high of seven.

However, the lead lasted just two minutes as Cedric Soares’ low cross was converted from close range by England winger Saka.

Fresh from scoring a hat-trick against Leeds in the Premier League, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang had two big chances but inexplicably side-footed wide from close range with the score at 0-0 and then dragged an effort off target at 1-1.

In positive news for the Gunners, left-back Kieran Tierney and forward Gabriel Martinelli made welcome returns from injury as second-half substitutes.

The second leg is in Athens in a week’s time, sandwiched between two big league fixtures for the Gunners – the visit of Manchester City to the Emirates and a trip to Leicester.

Saka to the rescue as big chances go begging

Arsenal have improved in recent weeks, both in performances and results, but such was their inconsistent start to the season, the Europa League probably represents their most realistic route back into the Champions League.

The Gunners’ starting XI suggests Mikel Arteta agrees, with the Spaniard naming the same side that began Sunday’s impressive 4-2 win over Leeds at the Emirates.

Remarkably, it is the first time Arsenal have named an unchanged XI since September 2018 but it brought with it some of Sunday’s attacking fluency, especially down the right, with Hector Bellerin a constant and energetic menace.

What it lacked, though, was similar lethal finishing, most notably from the weekend’s hat-trick hero Aubameyang.

Excuses can be made for why his second chance was spurned, with it being at a tight angle, but not his first.

Bellerin’s low cross laid the strike on a plate for the forward but somehow he found a way to put his shot past the post instead of in the net where bit belonged.

Thankfully, Saka was sharp enough to finish when required from a similar distance at the other end, the goal his 10th in a Gunners shirt and further evidence of his rapidly growing importance to Arteta’s side.

Since the start of last season, the 19-year-old is the youngest Premier League player to have scored 10+ goals and made 10+ assists across all competitions.

The Benfica line-up contained a number of former Premier League players, including ex-Tottenham defender Jan Vertonghen and mercurial midfielder Adel Taraabt, who entertained and infuriated fans of Tottenham and QPR in equal measure.

The Moroccan’s only contribution of note came midway through the second half in the form of a driving run and incisive pass to find Everton, who proceeded to curl a shot just past the far top corner of Bernd Leno’s goal.

No further major chances followed for either side, leaving it all to play for in Greece.

Pizzi emulates a true great

  • Pizzi is the first Portuguese player to score at least seven goals in a single European campaign for Benfica since Eusebio, who did so during the 1970/71 European Cup Winners’ Cup campaign (also 7).
  • Since the start of the 2019-20 Europa League campaign, only Bruno Fernandes (10) has scored more goals in the competition than Benfica’s Pizzi (9).
  • Pizzi’s opener from the penalty spot was Benfica’s 100th goal in the Europa League, one of just eight clubs to reach this total since the inaugural season of the competition back in 2009-10.
  • Arsenal have managed to progress from 13 of their previous 16 knockout ties in major Uefa competition when either drawing or winning the first leg away from home, though one of their eliminations did come at this exact stage of the Europa League last season vs Olympiakos.
  • Benfica remain unbeaten in each of their 26 Europa League matches at home (W20 D6) – this is at least 15 more home matches than any other team who is yet to lose a home game in the competition (Chelsea, 11).

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Benfica

  1. Squad number77Player nameHelton Leite

  2. Squad number4Player nameLucas Verissimo

  3. Squad number30Player nameOtamendi

  4. Squad number5Player nameVertonghen

  5. Squad number17Player nameDiogo Gonçalves

  6. Squad number21Player namePizzi

  7. Squad number28Player nameWeigl

  8. Squad number49Player nameTaarabt

  9. Squad number3Player nameGrimaldo

  10. Squad number10Player nameWaldschmidt

  11. Squad number9Player nameNúñez

  1. Squad number7Player nameEverton

  2. Squad number8Player nameGabriel Pires

  3. Squad number14Player nameSeferovic

  4. Squad number19Player nameChiquinho

  5. Squad number27Player nameRafa

Line-ups

Benfica

Formation 3-5-2

  • 77Aleixo Leite
  • 4Verissimo da SilvaSubstituted forMachadoat 85′minutes
  • 30Otamendi
  • 5Vertonghen
  • 17Cupido Goncalves
  • 21Afonso FernandesSubstituted forSousa Soaresat 64′minutes
  • 28Weigl
  • 49TaarabtSubstituted forAppelt Piresat 77′minutes
  • 3Grimaldo
  • 10WaldschmidtSubstituted forFerreira Silvaat 45′minutes
  • 9NúñezSubstituted forSeferovicat 64′minutes

Substitutes

  • 1Svilar
  • 2Junior
  • 7Sousa Soares
  • 8Appelt Pires
  • 11Cervi
  • 14Seferovic
  • 19Machado
  • 27Ferreira Silva
  • 38Delmino da Silva
  • 71Tavares
  • 82Fonseca Ferreira
  • 99Vlachodimos

Arsenal

Formation 4-2-3-1

  • 1Leno
  • 2Bellerín
  • 23David Luiz
  • 6Gabriel
  • 17Cédric SoaresSubstituted forTierneyat 64′minutes
  • 8CeballosSubstituted forElnenyat 90′minutes
  • 34Xhaka
  • 7Saka
  • 11ØdegaardSubstituted forWillianat 90′minutes
  • 32Smith RoweSubstituted forMartinelliat 77′minutes
  • 14AubameyangSubstituted forPépéat 77′minutes

Substitutes

  • 3Tierney
  • 9Lacazette
  • 12Willian
  • 16Holding
  • 19Pépé
  • 21Chambers
  • 22Marí
  • 25Elneny
  • 30Nketiah
  • 33Ryan
  • 35Martinelli
  • 44Hein

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