Bukayo Saka’s quick equaliser saw Arsenal grab an important away goal in a 1-1 draw against Benfica in their Europa League last-32 tie in Rome.
It has been a cagey first half at the Stadio Olimpico and Arsenal should have gone into the break in front, but Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang fired just wide with only goalkeeper Helton Aleixo Leite to beat.
But the game livened up after the break and Benfica were awarded an early penalty when Emile Smith Rowe was penalised for handball. Europa League top scorer and captain Pizzi (55) dispatched from the spot.
However, their lead only lasted a few minutes as Arsenal hit back almost instantly. Cedric Soares, who started his career at Benfica’s fierce rivals Sporting Lisbon, fired in a cross that was turned home by Saka. VAR checked the goal for offside – Arsenal were flagged 10 times during the game – but it stood.
The last-32 tie is finely poised for the second leg next Thursday in Athens with Arsenal holding a slender advantage with the away goal.
Arsenal began well in Rome and should have taken the lead inside 20 minutes. Hector Bellerin sent a fizzing cross in from the right, which met an open Aubameyang at the far post. However, the striker could only place his effort wide of the post from close range in an agonising miss.
Arsenal had another sight of goal shortly after, but after a driving run along the top of the area from Saka, his effort curled harmlessly into Helton Leite’s hands. Bernd Leno almost fluffed his only save of the half as Darwin Nunez fired straight at him, spilling the shot before pouncing on the loose ball.
Benfica had one of their chances of the half in injury time. Alex Grimaldo nipped through to take advantage of a wayward Granit Xhaka pass, but his attempted cross pinged off the head of Soares before going behind for a corner.
The second half was a much livelier affair and eight minutes in, Benfica were awarded a penalty. Diogo Goncalves’ attempted cross from a short corner hit Smith Rowe on the chest and onto his raised arm, with the referee pointing to the spot. Benfica captain Pizzi then slotted home past Leno to hand the designated hosts the lead.
But it lasted all of two and a half minutes. A superb Martin Odegaard pass picked out Cedric down the left of the area, with his zipped cross turned home by Saka from close range. VAR checked for offside but it was allowed to stand as Arsenal nabbed the all-important away goal.
Both sides went close soon after as the half continued apace. Leno made a fine, leaping save to keep out half-time substitute Rafa Silva. But it was not Aubameyang’s night at the other end as he sent another effort wide, this time past the far post, taking a small nick off the woodwork on the way through.
There were some half chances as the game continued but neither side could take them and had to settled for a first-leg draw.
Man of the match – Martin Odegaard
It was an impressive performance from the Real Madrid loanee on only his second Arsenal start. He made some superb passes throughout and flourished in midfield – and it was Odegaard’s brilliant ball to pick out Cedric on the left that led to the goal.
The only downside was that more of his passes did not manifest into goals. If it has only taken a handful of games for Odegaard to be this good for Arsenal, it bodes well for the future.