Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang pounced for the goal that could save Arsenal’s season as his late header earned a 3-2 win over Benfica.
The Gunners scraped through to the Europa League last-16 stage, winning the tie 4-3 on aggregate thanks to two goals from captain Aubameyang and one from Kieran Tierney, but it was very nearly a shocker of a night for Mikel Arteta and his team.
They took the lead through Aubameyang, but Dani Ceballos then blundered twice and Diogo Goncalves and Rafa put Benfica ahead.
Kieran Tierney hit back, yet it looked as though Arsenal, the designated home team, would be eliminated on the away-goals rule until Aubameyang headed in Bukayo Saka’s cross in the 87th minute, ensuring their only realistic route into next season’s Champions League was not cut off.
Aubameyang’s class told in the 21st minute, when a match short on quality in its early stages was brightened up by the former Borussia Dortmund striker meeting Saka’s terrific pass into the penalty area and chipping delicately over goalkeeper Helton Leite.
But the Lisbon giants were level in the 43rd minute when Diogo Goncalves curled a sublime free-kick strike into the top left corner, after Ceballos tripped Julian Weigl on the edge of the penalty area.
It was Benfica’s first successful direct strike from a free-kick in the Europa League since 2014, and one to admire.
Aubameyang had the ball in the net again early in the second half after a sharp pass from Martin Odegaard, but the Arsenal captain was ruled to have stepped fractionally offside.
The real shocker from Ceballos came in the 61st minute when his intended header back to Bernd Leno was woefully under-powered and Rafa beat the goalkeeper to the ball, dashing through to fire into an empty net.
Ceballos was immediately hauled off. Manager Arteta needed a response and it came from Tierney, the left-back sidestepping a challenge and lashing a low shot into the far- right corner from 15 yards.
The winners of this competition go into next season’s Champions League, and this Arsenal side would be out of their depth at that level in their current shape, but in Saka and Aubameyang they have two top-class performers.
With time running out, they combined to impactful effect for the second time in the game as Saka’s teasing ball from the left found the head of Aubameyang, he nodded in, and Arsenal somehow survived.