Back from the abyss! Aubameyang silences critics and keeps Arsenal's season alive
Just when it appeared the Gunners' progress in the Europa League would be halted by Benfica, their captain came up with the goods
Match statistics: Arsenal 3-2 Benfica
Arsenal’s season lives to fight another day - just!
After what has been a miserable campaign in the Premier League so far, one that sees the Gunners currently languishing in 11th place ahead of Sunday’s trip to Leicester, there was an all-or-nothing feel about Thursday's crucial Europa League last-32 second-leg clash against Benfica in Athens.
Defeat and Arsenal’s season was effectively over by March. Win and the chance of a trophy and qualification for the Champions League remained.
There was no real room for error for the Gunners following the 1-1 draw in the first leg and memories of last season’s shock defeat by Olympiacos at this stage of the competition were fresh in everyone’s minds before kick-off.
And, trailing 2-1 with half an hour remaining, they once again found themselves on the edge of disaster.
But after Kieran Tierney found an equaliser, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang stepped up with just three minutes remaining to keep Arsenal’s season alive in the most dramatic of fashion.
This was a vital win for Arteta and for Aubameyang it was a night that made a mockery of suggestions that his best days had been and gone.
After his hat-trick against Leeds, the Gunners skipper endured a difficult week. His costly misses in the first leg against Benfica drew plenty of criticism and he was singled out again after Sunday’s defeat at the hands of Manchester City.
Sky Sports pundit Jamie Redknapp said the 31-year-old had lost his ’superpower’ and that he now looked like a striker who gets bullied by defenders.
But Aubameyang was the bully in Greece, breaking Benfica hearts with his late header to send his side through to the last 16.
He may not have hit the heights of his previous campaigns in north London, but he stepped up once again when his team needed him most.
The Gunners skipper has now scored 13 goals in 26 games this season and has nine in his last 12 in all competitions.
“I completely trust him," Arteta said after the game when asked about his captain. "You know with Aub that when he has chances, he is going to score goals.
"In Rome, he missed three opportunities that are normally three goals for him, and he needed to react and it's great to see that the way he reacted is by being upset and trying to be better and not just feeling sad for himself in this moment.
"I am really pleased with how he did tonight."
Aubameyang opened the scoring midway through the first half, finishing off a delicious pass from Bukayo Saka, and at that point things seemed to be going smoothly for Arteta’s side.
But a rash foul from Dani Ceballos just before the interval gave Benfica a free-kick 25 yards out, and Diogo Goncalves stepped up to curl a fabulous effort past Bernd Leno into the top corner.
And things got even worse for the Spanish midfielder when his weak back header was seized upon by Rafa Silva on 61 minutes, allowing the Benfica striker to skip around Leno and fire into an empty net.
That left Arsenal with a mountain to climb, needing two goals in under half an hour to progress.
Hopes were raised when Tierney levelled almost immediately with a thumping finish after some neat play from Willian, who had just replaced Emile Smith Rowe.
At that point you expected a siege from Arsenal, but in truth they struggled to break Benfica down in the closing stages, and the Portuguese champions appeared to be cruising relatively comfortably toward advancement.
Aubameyang had other ideas, however, and with just three minutes remaining, he drifted into space at the back post and had the simple task of nodding yet another wonderful Saka assist beyond Helton Leite in the Benfica goal.
Saka now has 12 goal involvements this season, six goals and six assists, only Aubameyang (14) and Lacazette (13) have more for Arsenal.
The 19-year-old winger scored the crucial equaliser in the first leg in Rome and made the difference once again in Athens, highlighting just how vital he is to Arsenal despite his tender years.
Arteta’s celebrations at full-time were a clear indicator of how important victory was in Greece. The Spaniard would have been well aware of the consequences of defeat.
And for 30 nervy minutes his side found themselves staring into the abyss. But, thanks to Aubameyang and Saka, the dream of silverware and qualification for the Champions League remains very much alive.
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