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It was a crazy day of sport all round. 17 wickets fell in a Test match and I missed every one of them because I was in Zoom meetings. So, in a game critical to our season,  we settled down to a tea time kick off in Athens only to see us take control, toss it away, toss it away some more, fight back immediately and then, in a moment of exquisite skill, three minutes from the end, win the tie and go through. Only Arsenal can do this to your cardiovascular system. For those partial to manicures, only Arsenal can lay waste to all the good work done on those fingernails and leave you with raggedy bits and a taste of nail polish in your mouth. For those partial to a drink, only Arsenal can take that bottle of the good stuff you were hoping was going to take a fortnight to drink and leave a scant few inches at the end of the game. Only Arsenal.

In this last 32 fixture in the knock out section of the Europa League we at were at home. In Athens. More weirdness. The tie stood at 1-1 after the previous week we had managed to hand Benfica a draw via a penalty kick after dominating the match and missing 107 presentable chances, most of them by our magnificent Captain having a strange off day. The manager picked what, Thomas Partey aside, was pretty much his strongest team. Young legs were hurting; risks were being taken with fitness but needs must. The season was on the line – we had to deliver. 

Leno, Bellerin, Luiz, Gabriel, Tierney, Ceballos, Xhaka, Ǿdegaard, Smith Rowe, Saka, Aubameyang.

Strategically Benfica went with 3 at the back with wing backs and a high press. Our team looked like a 4-2-3-1.

We scored three great goals and threw away two sloppy ones. Our first goal, after 20 minutes was a joy. Saka received the ball on the half turn just outside the area and played a superb ball, inch perfect between two defenders, into Auba’s path. Just onside, Auba clinically chipped their keeper. A goal Bergkamp and Henry would have been proud to have combined for. Auba’s back, everyone!

Chances followed at both ends but we were playing well, secure in the knowledge that they needed two because of our away goals. Then cock up number one. Dani Ceballos was somehow deep on the edge of his own area, between the centre backs. A Benfica player danced at him but, with cover behind, Dani hung out a lazy leg (do they coach that at Colney?), caught the man and conceded a very cheap free kick. Gonçalvez stepped up, produced a fabulous, unsaveable free kick into the top corner. 1-1 at half time (agg 2-2) and anybody’s game. We had tossed away the advantage at the end of the half, having dominated the game. Wolves all over again!

We began the second half well. Again Auba was laid in, this time by Ǿdegaard, again he finished clinically, but this time the offside call was just against him.

Then cock up number 2. Both centre backs went up for an Arsenal corner, which was rather wasted by a high loopy ball from Ǿdegaard which was caught easily by their keeper. He immediately punted it downfield, John Beck style. Back defending was Dani Ceballos. With all the time in the world to return the ball forwards, he decided on a back flick to Leno. It was poorly conceived and disastrously executed. The ball just slid off his head to Rafi Silva who had a simple task to round Leno and walk the ball into the net. Suddenly we were behind 2-1 (3-2) and needing to score two more to avoid defeat. Ceballos was immediately hooked for Partey and, somewhat bafflingly, Willian came on for Emile Smith Rowe.

Now my columns in the past have contained the suggestion that when Willian comes on, he stinks the place out, slows the game down and is generally useless. I’d just like to say that this is the result of post submission editing by the blog’s editors and that Willian is a fine fellow (it’s difficult to talk when your tongue is so firmly lodged in your cheek isn’t it?). Because Willian was – OK. He did a couple of give and go’s on the left and on 68 minutes got to the by line and cut the ball back to Tierney, just inside the box. KT3 beat two men and then absolutely blasted a shot to the far corner with that sweet left foot, surely the most effective left peg since Poldi departed. Rather than wild celebrations he then politely suggested to his team mates in broad Glaswegian that there was a game to win here and could they pull their bloody fingers out? 2-2 on the night and still over 20 minutes to get that vital third goal. 

With 15 minutes to go, Laca came on for Bellerin. Saka dropped into right back, but to be honest he wasn’t doing a lot of backing, but a lot of winging. Benfica at this point dropped back into their low block, six at the back and looked to hold onto what they had. It almost worked. Pass, pass, pass. Tackle, tackle, tackle. Then, with just three minutes to go, and the level in the bottle dropping alarmingly, Saka picked up the ball on the right side of the penalty area. He made one of his trademark runs across the area and then with his left foot produced the most perfect cross in front of the defenders to the back post where Auba had ghosted in. He buried it. There was an agonising moment while VAR offside was checked (it was close) but the goal was given and somehow, somehow, we were in front 4-3 on aggregate. 

There was time to bring on Calum Chambers and Elneny for a gallop, four minutes of extra time and for Benfica to hit the post (albeit from a clearly offside position) but we had plucked defeat from the jaws of victory and then decided that no, we’d quite like to win, please. An agonising match for fans to watch on TV. But the catharsis of that final goal will live long in the memories.

Let’s start with the positives. We’ve been saying this here for two years now, but in Saka we have a true generational gem. He is elite level and has come of age. He makes major contributions in virtually every game he plays and he plays all over the park. We must look after him and not overplay him, but boy am I glad Arteta picked him last night. Auba had a great game. He made fantastic runs, and clinically finished virtually everything presented to him, bar the odd offside flag. Kieran Tierney is a true leader amongst men. He surely is an Arsenal Captain and legend in the making, continuing our great tradition of left backs all the way back to Bob McNab and beyond.

So what didn’t go so well? We were very slow moving the ball forward against an organised Benfica team. That mainly came from the midfield, Xhaka and Ceballos. We need Partey to go on a run of fitness and games and to link defence and attack. This could also come from the centre backs and Gabriel had a poor game I thought, never really looking in control. Dani Ceballos had a game he will wake up screaming in the night about in his dotage. To be fair he was man enough to immediately apologise to everyone on social media afterwards. These inconsistencies are why we are where we are in the table and almost lost last night. Over the two legs we gave a pretty ordinary Benfica team a penalty, a sloppy free kick that led to a goal and a world class snafu that almost lost us the game.

After the game Arteta gave a press conference as usual. You can see the whole transcript on Arsenal.com. But I wanted to pick out this quote about Willian.

With Willian especially, I think he changed the game, he gave us much more composure, much more creativity, he produced a goal for Tierney.

Now I wish to make it clear that I am a 100% supporter of Arteta who is moving us in the right direction and developing a really good team. But there are only two possible explanations for that quote. The first is that he wanted to big up a player who has had a very tough season and recently suffered social media attacks from so called “fans”. In which case, it’s a bit cringey, but fair enough. The second is that he believes it. Which is a problem because it is 100% horseshit! Willian did OK, but no more. Far from “producing a goal for Tierney” which makes it sound like a killer ball followed by a tap in, 98% of the credit for the goal goes to KT3 for beating two men and then hitting a low accurate piledriver of a shot into the corner.

At the time of writing the draw for the next round has not been made – no doubt the opponents will be posted in the drinks. So, can we win this thing? Who knows? This is a team who can beat anyone and can lose to anyone. Still – keeps life interesting anyway!

Thank God we won!

40 Drinks to “Benfica Finally Kebabbed in Greek Nailbiter”

  1. 1
    bt8 says:


  2. 2
    bt8 says:

    Excellent review of a nailbitingly memorable come from behind season saver of a victory, Countryman. Thanks also to Scruz for a great preview including the Python philosophers match link.

  3. 3
    Bathgooner says:

    Nice one, sir. I love the imagery in that first paragraph. I am sure that match has taken at least a year off my life!

    It was torture to watch that game but the players who worked their way to victory last night will benefit immeasurably in confidence and determination from that experience. Me? Not one iota. Please don’t do that again.

  4. 4
    Countryman100 says:

    Can’t you sleep bt8! It’s five in the morning in Minnesota! Or have you been up all night waiting for the report?

  5. 5
    Pangloss says:

    Great stuff Countyman. I’ve long had my suspicions about the dastardly editors on this blog.


  6. 6
    Countryman100 says:

    It’s Olympiacos again! Just like last year! Away leg first.

  7. 7
    Bathgooner says:

    It could be a lot worse. Further, it’s a great opportunity to right the wrongs of last year’s meeting.

  8. 8
    North Bank Ned says:

    Man U get AC Milan, which will get rid of at least one potential overall winner. The neighbours get Dinamo Zagreb, possibly the second weakest team left in.

  9. 9
    North Bank Ned says:

    Does Olympiacos mean we can’t get any away goals as we will be playing both legs at our home grounds?

  10. 10
    North Bank Ned says:

    Splendid match report, C100. You have captured life behind the sofa to a T. (One for those dastardly editors, there.)

    To be fair to Willian, I thought he put in his best performance of the season, low bar though that may be.

  11. 11
    North Bank Ned says:

    An I like your definition of sport, C100 — The Arsenal game and a Test match. But then what more is there to sport?

  12. 12
    Trev says:

    Nice one Countryman !

    Each to their own, and we’ve had some fine blow by blow accounts on the blog too, but I’m liking these more overview, general team and player driven reports.

    On to Olympiakos then for the next round – twice probably – like an Aussi soap “Home and Away”. Why ? Kos we have to !

  13. 13
    Countryman100 says:

    Many thanks to all. Trev I was getting bored with writing the play by play reports so deliberately changed it up this time. Other feedback appreciated.

  14. 14
    Uplympian says:

    Many thanks for a great review c100. I agree with my fellow drinkers here it’s a very comprehensive overview of the game – most enjoyable. I’m not sure what kind of report we would have seen if you had sent a play by play one – particularly with the quite necessary liquid refreshments being imbibed at the time!
    Olympiacos…again, a chance to pay back for last years debacle. It will also be a quick reunion of the squad with the recently departed Sokratis.

  15. 15
    TTG says:

    That’s a superb evocation of an Arsenal experience – much more than a game! You raise the two key points . That quote about Willian is so OTT it was embarrassing . I hope Willian appreciated his manager producing such a cringeworthy assessment of his impact. He was 6/10 max and we are supposed to be ecstatic? Secondly we could not have made life harder for ourselves . Benfica were bang average , we fashioned four excellent goals over two legs …and won by the skin of our teeth. Leno scarcely made a save in two legs and thankfully decided not to take out the lad for the second goal yesterday .
    I had the unusual experience of watching during my monthly Old Boys quiz having committed to it expecting to kick off at 8pm. I had the TV on while I grappled with the highest waterfall in the world , sixties pop ( it’s always sixties or seventies) and famous battles . Watching a silent screen was odd but I was providing an occasional commentary for a set of South London gits who think this weekend’s clash between Fulham and Palace matters . VAR is no fun with no commentary either…but then it’s no fun however it’s presented .
    We’ve won we are through and we can play the away leg on our home ground. We are three for three during our last matches there

  16. 16
    bt8 says:

    Now I’ve read your report here and in the Gooner, c100. Great job both times. 👍🏼

  17. 17
    bt8 says:

    Re: c100 @4. Couldn’t get back to sleep after the dog required an emergency 3:30am walk precipitated by my incomplete cleaning up of spilled peppercorns while cooking dinner last night. Not too good on pooch’s digestion apparently but your report was waiting upon my return.

  18. 18
    bt8 says:

    Olympiacos, you say?

    Something for Auba and Laca to brush up on (and possibly shorten) before then, then. https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=FPrUZx9AKSc

  19. 19
    Countryman100 says:


  20. 20
    bt8 says:

    Arteta on Auba’s improved attitude:

    “Sometimes when you go through difficult moments, you can have those difficult moments and get into a sad mood and I think that’s the worst thing you can do because nobody has to feel sorry for themselves when you’re having those moments. What you have to do is get upset, get angry, work harder and approach the situation and face it.

    “Face the challenge in a way that creates more motivation and more hunger to do it and I think in recent weeks I’ve seen that reaction.“

  21. 21
    Trev says:

    bt8 @18 👏🏻👏🏻👏🏻

  22. 22
    ksn says:

    We almost fucked it up but miraculously turned it around thanks, in the main, to Tierney, Saka and Auba. You have captured how tough it was to watch C100, and the winner came as a huge relief as we would have nothing to play for this season, if we had lost the match. Olympiacos will be tough but I think we will win this time. The schedule from here on will be physically draining and I think many of our players must already be in the red zone. It would be interesting to see how Arteta manages to rotate the squad and still have us winning.
    The cricket match was a waste of time on a terrible wicket. The audience have been robbed of what, on a sporting wicket, would have have been an interesting tussle.

  23. 23
    ksn says:

    Thanks Bt8 @18, the video was wonderful.

  24. 24
    Esso says:

    Cheers C100!

  25. 25
    Osakamatt says:

    Thanks C100, great report with
    some good thoughts. To be honest
    I like both formats, the quick reports
    and the delayed versions. I guess
    that’s not very helpful 😄
    Depends on the game really I suppose,
    there was quite a lot to digest from
    that Benfica game so it was worth
    taking some time over.

  26. 26
    TTG says:

    C100 has always produced extremely enjoyable travelogues as well as reflective and interesting match reports and rather like Dave Faber when he was travelling to a game he released the report the following day. My knowledge of curry houses throughout the North of England and the Midlands has been immeasurably enhanced by Countryman’s recall of match experiences!
    If Dave was watching at home and especially if a match had gone very badly he was able to rush out extremely cogent and balanced reports quickly , which had the effect of calming Holicland when some of us were perplexed by events . It fell to me to report on a few of those interminable series of home defeats in the autumn and I tried to come out with the same sort of report without ever being able to get close to the quality and sanity of what Dave used to write . If you think about it we get into a somewhat febrile state as the match approaches and we are usually high on a victory especially if we’ve played well or very low if we’ve lost and lower if we’ve played badly .
    I always strive for a balance if I can achieve it between euphoria and depression and it’s easier to do that with a report that sums up the big picture rather than every kick and incident .
    Frankly without being too self- congratulatory I think the standard of previewing and reviewing on here is exceptional and I treasure the multiplicity of writing styles, insights and humour . It seems to me that every writer tries to produce copy that the founder of this blog would approve of, a big task but one that I think the group achieve admirably . I am certain that Dave would be delighted with what we’ve been able to create in this last year

  27. 27
    Bathgooner says:

    TTG @26, I too enjoyed C100’s erstwhile culinary detours though for those of us with less cast-iron-based digestive systems, I rather wish he had occasionally ventured into less challenging cuisines. Having said that, I recognise and hold my hand up to the importance of match-day rituals.

  28. 28
    Countryman100 says:

    This is interesting. Reports that Mustafi and Kolasinac are part of a rebel group at Schalke.

  29. 29
    Countryman100 says:

    It wasn’t always curry! The Wetherby Whaler for fine fish and chips is our go to if we’ve been in the North East. Also I have a fussy son to accommodate. When on an overnight we push the boat out a little. I recommend the Broad Chare in Newcastle on the Quay.

  30. 30
    Countryman100 says:

    In the interests of those with less cast iron digestive systems, I’llplug Bath’s favourite place near Finsbury Park station.


  31. 31
    Bathgooner says:

    I tried to reduce the overlap but in the end had to delete the link to the Broad Chare but anyone interested can find its site in a Google search. Looks good.

    I’m sure Marco at Pappagone will appreciate the plug if it’s still a going concern.

  32. 32
    Countryman100 says:

    Presumably take away will have kept him ticking over?

  33. 33
    Bathgooner says:

    Interesting report @28. That may be significant to our own history. I do think player power/self-importance has grown to the detriment of the game. To think Gorgeous George complained about it in 1990!

  34. 34
    Bathgooner says:

    Hope so. They always had a significant take-away trade particularly for the pizzas. I suspect the expamsion restaurant in Elephant & Castle has bitten the dust. Opened in December 2019. Hellish timing.

  35. 35
    North Bank Ned says:

    Curry and chips, C100. What’s to complain about?

    I must agree with TTG@26 that the sustained quality of the match previews and reports furnished to this fine establishment by its regular correspondents is laudable and a fitting tribute in style, substance and sanity of the Guv’nor. The variety of the formats and writerly approaches only adds to that.

  36. 36
    Doctor Faustus says:

    Excellent review Countryman! All salient points precisely observed and pithily articulated.

    Auba may not end his Arsenal career with a huge number of trophies — but hopefully a couple of more at least before he retires, starting with this season’s Europa? — but he has been an immensely important player for us in his hitherto short stint with us. That is not to trivialize all the other good performers alongside him throughout his Arsenal career — Lacazette in tandem at the beginning, Saka/Tierney/ESR now, Gabi before injury delayed his what would have been surely by now a more consistent first team presence etc. — but without his goals both Emery and Arteta would have looked much worse. His misses against Benfica in the first round wasn’t that uncharacteristic at all as he has always been prone to missing sitters but compensated for it by the extraordinary ability to get himself in the right position. What stands out in his Arsenal career compared to his prolific Dortmund days is his conversion rate has actually become much better for us. Given that our chance creation rates are now increasing — thanks to Saka, ESR and now Ødegaard — let us hope he just keeps up his form for couple of more years before we can start establishing his understudy.

    That said, I think Mikel should also be careful about not overplaying him. Even though he scores a lot of goals from close range he is not really an Inzaghi style poacher — Cryuff once famously told about Pippo: “He cannot really play football at all, he is just always in the right position.” 🙂 — but a very dynamic striker who relies a lot on constant movements for the close finishes as well as scores many goals using his considerable amount of technical skills by creating chances from otherwise difficult angles and keeping him physically sharp for key matches will be important. It is a challenge because when he is in a goalscoring streak the temptation to start him every match is high.

    Let us hope Gabi/Laca/Pépé will get more chances and then will prove their worth by contributing towards the goals scored column. Laca has moved in and out of the team this season and having ESR/Ødegaard playing centrally reduced the need for having to rely on his link-up play as that hybrid nine-and-half role Mikel used him in the early part of the season. But he is a good finisher in the box and I think if he doesn’t have to do the hard work of constantly dropping in and have a partner in pressing like Gabi we may find more goals for him as well, and via routes that are different that Auba’s and hence adding more variety to our attacking options.

    As for Mikel’s comments about Willian: I refuse to believe he cannot really see what everyone else sees and we can only guess whatever his reasons are, if Reiss or Pépé had been given that much of opportunity and came up with that kind of returns their Arsenal career would have ended, but I sure hope that at some point of the season in some ways Willian pays him back and at least give us supporters some decent memory. I never like to see any of our players failing … compare his performance to a similarly experienced Yossi Benayoun joining us on loan and being so much effective and I feel we really have wasted not only money but a squad position on him.

  37. 37
    bt8 says:

    Kebabbed indeed. Not sure how many b’s it takes mind you but good word. 🙂

  38. 38
    bt8 says:

    Sequel: Kebabbed under the baobab tree

  39. 39
    scruzgooner says:

    fine job, countryman, i enjoyed that. it was such a nailbiter of a game, while i hate games like that i love wins like that. but. let’s do better against the greeks. perhaps we should score a couple goals against them at theirs, then watch for hollow horses when back chez ashburton grove.

  40. 40
    scruzgooner says: