By Josh James
Bukayo Saka scored what could turn out to be a crucial away goal as we came from behind to claim a first-leg draw in Rome.
Although the game was being played in Italy due to Covid travel restrictions, this was actually Benfica's home game, and with the away goals rule still in play, Saka's second-half strike could yet prove decisive.
Benfica, currently fourth in Portuguese Primeira Liga, had gone ahead from the penalty spot early in the second half, but their lead lasted barely two minutes before Saka turned home his first European goal of the season.
It was the least we deserved, and in fact we had the chances to win the game.
We started the game well in control, dictating the tempo of the game, keeping the ball well and trying to get in behind the high line of the Benfica defence.
But there was little incisiveness and no chances created until 20 minutes in, when we really should have taken the lead. Hector Bellerin sprinted away on the right, slid the ball across goal for Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang unmarked at the far post, but on this occasion our captain's aim was lacking, and his shot went the wrong side of the upright.
We kept moving the ball well though, and were growing in confidence in our interchanges and combinations around the Benfica area.
The breakthrough still wouldn't come however, and we were nearly punished late in the half when Grimaldo pounced on a loose Granit Xhaka pass, but Dani Ceballos got back well to block.
The second half began following the pattern of the first, with us looking to pin back the five-man Benfica defence. But it was the 'hosts' who took the lead from a dubious-looking penalty award for an Emile Smith Rowe handball. Pizzi duly tucked home from 12 yards.
We had scored in each of our previous 22 Europa League games, and we really needed to keep that run going now.
We didn't have to wait long. Almost instantly Cedric got in behind the defence to latch on to a Martin Odegaard pass, and centred for Saka to convert from close range.
We were back on the front foot. Aubameyang shot just wide shortly afterwards and Odegaard was growing in influence too.
Gabriel Martinelli and Nicolas Pepe were introduced as we sought the extend our 100 per cent record in this season's Europa League, but it wasn't to be.
HOW IT HAPPENED
WHAT IT MEANS
Although both legs of this round of 32 tie are being played at neutral venue, the away goals rule is in play, meaning that a clean sheet in our 'home' match – which will be played in Athens, Greece next Thursday - would be enough to see us through to the last 16.
This was the first time that Mikel Arteta had been able to name an unchanged side. In fact it was the first time any Arsenal boss had named the same starting XI in successive games since September 2018.
It meant that Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang kept his place up front after his hat-trick at the weekend, while Hector Bellerin, Emile Smith Rowe and Martin Odegaard also made their first starts in the competition this season.
Before we take on Benfica again in the second leg next Thursday, we have the small matter of taking on runaway Premier League leaders Manchester City, at the Emirates, on Sunday afternoon.
Pep Guardiola's men have won 17 straight games going into the fixture, though we are unbeaten in six now at home in all competitions.
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