Mikel Arteta insists he has “complete trust” in Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang after his captain banished painful memories from 12 months ago to score a brace against Benfica and guide Arsenal into the last 16 of the Europa League.
The Gunners were just three minutes away from crashing out on away goals – despite both legs being played at neutral venues.
Current coronavirus travel restrictions meant the Gunners had to ‘host’ the second leg of their round-of-32 tie in Athens, where Aubameyang’s late header saw them win 3-2 on the night and 4-3 on aggregate.
Tied at 1-1 following the ‘away’ leg in Rome last week, Arsenal went a goal ahead through Aubameyang only for Diogo Goncalves to level with a fine free-kick, awarded for a foul by Dani Ceballos.
Ceballos’ defensive header then allowed Rafa Silva to race through on goal and put the Portuguese club in front just after the hour.
Arsenal, needing to score twice to progress, pulled one back through Kieran Tierney before Aubameyang scored a dramatic 87th-minute winner when he nodded in Bukayo Saka’s cross.
Aubameyang has endured a hit-and-miss season and spurned a number of chances in the first leg – but he remains Arsenal’s top goalscorer and has the faith of Arteta.
“I completely trust him because he is the producing the chances and you know when Auba has chances he’s going to score goals,” the Arsenal boss said.
“The last few days after the game in Rome against them, where he missed three or four opportunities and normally they are three goals for him, he needed to react and it was great to see the way he reacted is being upset and trying to be better – and not just feeling sad for yourself in this moment. I am really pleased with what he’s done tonight.”
Not only had the Gabon forward missed a number of clear chances in the first meeting with Benfica but he was guilty of spurning a sitter when Arsenal were dumped out on away goals at this stage last season, losing to Olympiacos.
Asked if Aubameyang’s winner 364 days on from that game, in the home stadium of Olympiacos, was the kind of poetry football can produce, Arteta said: “Yes, that is to be fair the first image that came through my mind when he scored.
“We didn’t know if the VAR was going to allow the goal and then the last action when they were offside as well and had a chance.
“This is the beautiful thing about football, if you keep going you always have the chance to put it right.”
Match-winner Aubameyang was thrilled to have put his side through almost a year on from that glaring miss at the Emirates Stadium.
He told BT Sport: “Everyone is happy tonight. Definitely, I had this in my head, but this is what gives me power every day, to take the error from the past and transform it to strength.
“Tonight I’m really happy that we won the game.
“The team showed character, a lot of character and I think we deserved the win. It was a hard game, but tonight I’m really happy for the team.
“What we showed tonight, I think it’s going to be an example for the future.”
Benfica were on the cusp of progressing but now go back to their ailing league campaign, with head coach Jorge Jesus bemoaning poor defending in Athens.
“What did we lack? We should have been able to prevent Arsenal’s second and third goals,” he said.
“But we were unable to grab the game and conceded goals where we were easily beaten. Not in the collective, but with individual mistakes.”