By Richard Clarke at Estádio da Luz, Lisbon Arsenal’s unbeaten pre-season record fell at the final hurdle when they went down 2-1 to Benfica on Saturday night. The visitors had one hand on the Eusebio Cup at half-time. Arsène Wenger’s side had started slowly but cruised into the break thanks to Robin van Persie’s clinical strike - a late present on his 28th birthday.
Both sides made significant changes at the interval and their effect undoubtedly shaped the final result. Argentinean international Pablo Aimar stabbed home the equaliser four minutes after the restart and Nolito fired home a fine second on the hour. Benfica were now the more experienced side and it showed. Arsenal tried to battle their way back into the game but the home side stayed firm. This result was a blow on the night but nothing too troubling given the changes at the break. However the serious stuff is now just a week away.
This was the fourth Eusebio Cup. Benfica's previous opponents in the event had been Inter, Milan and Tottenham, who were the holders thanks to Gareth Bale’s solitary goal last season. For those of you unaware of Eusebio’s legend, let’s throw you two simple statistics about his 15-year Benfica career - 638 goals, 614 games. No wonder Wenger had called him the European Pele. Before the game, the manager had suggested the Arsenal team this evening would be close to the one starting at Newcastle next Saturday. He had left a number of key players back in London with injuries of various lengths (all short-term). Barring those returns, it was worth wagering the team beginning at Benfica tonight would form the basis of the one at St. James' Park. The first 15 minutes were full of energy from the Portuguese side but the quality came from the English outfit. The home side claimed a penalty in the opening stages when Franco Jara went down under the challenge of Wojciech Szczesny on the right of the area. Arsenal responded with Gervinho fooling his marker before firing low into the sidenetting. Then Andrey Arshavin stretched keeper Eduardo with a low drive across the face of goal. As the half wore on, Benfica began to impose themselves. Just before the half-hour, Bruno Cesar thumped a cross-shot just wide and Oscar Cardozo fired over on the turn. There was pride at stake for the Lisbon side who had invested heavily in the summer and were desperate to reclaim from Porto their position as ‘top dogs’ in Portugal. However Arsenal had all the bite in the first half this evening In the 31st minute, Alex Song split the Benfica defence with a wonderful throughball and Van Persie’s chip beat the keeper before drifting past the far post. The Dutchman only had to wait a little longer for his birthday goal. On 33 minutes, Arshavin set Kieran Gibbs overlapping down the left and the defender’s cut-back was converted with lethal simplicity by the Dutchman. It was another strike on the road for Van Persie, whose Premier League record of nine away goals in consecutive game is still ongoing. The striker needed treatment shortly afterwards when he was caught on the ankle by Ezequiel Garay. He was back on his feet after treatment and, buoyed with confidence, Arsenal saw out the half. After the restart, Wenger brought on Chamakh, Miyaichi, Frimpong, Jenkinson, Squillaci and Fabianski for Arshavin, Van Persie, Song, Djourou, Sagna and Szczesny.They had barely settled by the time Benfica were level. Nico Gaitan escaped down the left and his long, rangy cut-back meandered its way to Nolito at the far post. His one-touch pass found Aimar unmarked on the edge of the six-yard box. The experienced Argentine international was never going to miss.The goal changed the game. Arsenal had been so composed after they scored but now they were on the back foot.Shortly afterwards, Luisao clipped the bar with a rising drive from close range.There was an intensity about Benfica after bringing on their more famous names at half time.The second goal outlined that. Aimar found Joan Capdevila on the left. He crossed inside to Nolito who skipped past Squillaci before beating Fabianski at the near post with a powerful low drive.Shortly afterwards, the keeper scrambled aside a thunderous, swerving free-kick from Javi Garcia.Arsenal would now have to scrap their way back into the game - and scrap they did.This had been a ‘no-holds-barred’ friendly throughout and the tackles continued to fly in from both sides.
Fourteen minutes from time, Gaitan stung the hands of Fabianski from distance. Late on the keeper also made fine stops from Jonathan Urretaviscaya and David Simao.Arsenal’s only real chance of an equaliser came from substitute Henri Lansbury but he fired a free-kick high over the bar.
Referee: M Rebelo
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