FRIDAY’S BIG HEADLINES
Saka stars again
Arsenal are a tangle of contradictions at the best of times, and on Thursday night against Benfica they proved as much again in a largely disappointing performance which nevertheless resulted in a life-affirming night.
I think he wants a favour, Stevie lad – The Warm-Up
This was absolutely not, as the worst Arsenal fan/pundit in modern civilisation described it, one of Arsenal’s greatest European nights (we won’t even link, you know who we mean). And yet it was a great European night for a handful of players. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, of course, who scored twice including the late winner which steered Arsenal past Benfica and into the Europa League last-16, and Kieran Tierney too, who launched the comeback at 2-1 down to win 3-2 with a well-taken goal.
But primarily, this was a great European night for a player who with every passing week looks like a generational talent in the making: Bukayo Saka, who assisted both of Aubameyang’s goals in a performance of extreme poise and quality which has become his hallmark, at 19 years of age. Nineteen!
Even Arsenal’s two-goal captain was under no illusions as to who the real hero of the evening was, as Saka laid both goals on a plate for him, first with a delicious low through ball as Aubameyang sprang the offside trap, second with a perfect cross to the far post after a couple of stepovers.
Arsenal’s season would have effectively been over if they had been knocked out last night, with their league campaign now drier than a dead dingo’s donger (yes, The Warm-Up has been watching Married At First Sight: Australia every day for the past four weeks).
But whether their comeback against Benfica does launch them towards Europa League glory or not, this season is the season of Bukayo Saka. Six goals and seven assists only tell half the story of a player who oozes football intelligence and quality and – no exaggeration whatsoever – is man of the match in almost every game he plays for Arsenal. The 19-year-old Hale End product is quite simply Arsenal’s best player. It’s not really even close.
***Watch the Europa League last-16 draw live on eurosport.co.uk and the Eurosport app from 12pm***
Arguably the most exciting thing about Saka is that you still don’t even really know what kind of player he will be. He’s played in about 17 different positions for Arsenal this season, has the ability and temperament to be a success in all of them, and could evolve into any sort of world-beating player at this stage. His most important asset, his football brain and his understanding of the game, is already in place.
Arsenal’s best teenage talent since Cesc Fabregas, certainly. (With all due respect to Jack Wilshere). But there is no real knowing where Saka’s ceiling is at the moment. Could he be as good as Phil Foden and Jadon Sancho? His performances are already answering that question. And it’s going to be thrilling to find out what comes next.
History makers, and penalty misses at Old Trafford
There was no such drama on a sedate night at Old Trafford as Manchester United closed out a 4-0 aggregate win against Real Sociedad courtesy of a 0-0 draw on the night, in a match which will chiefly be remembered for two things.
Firstly, the introduction of Shola Shoretire in the second half which made him the youngest player ever to represent United in European competition at 17 years and 23 days, surpassing the previous benchmark set by Norman Whiteside.
And secondly, this absolutely horrendous penalty miss from Sociedad’s Mikel Oyarzabal:
All The Warm-Up will say on this is that if you come to Bruno Fernandes’ house and copy his penalty-taking style, you simply must not miss. That is all there is to it.
Having the FaceTime of their lives
There were some Absolute Scenes at Leicester City as they were knocked out of the Europa League after losing 2-0 on the night to Slavia Prague.
It was a great night for the Czech side, who celebrated their win by FaceTiming their good pal and former team-mate, West Ham’s Tomas Soucek, live from the pitch at the King Power Stadium.
We want to see more of this please. Every Arsenal victory from this point onwards must be marked by a ceremonial FaceTime with Ian Wright. Every time United progress, get Roy Keane on Instagram live.
IN OTHER NEWS
Rangers somehow managed to construct a 9-5 win over Antwerp in the biggest aggregate scoreline since the UEFA Cup became the Europa League in the most disappointing rebrand since Opal Fruits ceased to be.
With a record of 24 wins, six draws and no defeats from their 30 league matches, and only nine (9) goals conceded, Rangers are a seriously impressive side under Steven Gerrard and they score some pretty good goals along the way. Here’s the best of last night’s offering, as they reached the Europa League last-16:
IN THE CHANNELS
After being the fall guy on ‘one of Arsenal’s most famous European nights’, Benfica coach Jorge Jesus launched into what can only be described as an epic press conference rant.
With Benfica sitting only fourth in the league and now dumped out of Europe, fan protests are said to be planned. And Jesus, well, he’s not very impressed. (The Warm-Up has to admit it is mystified what these references to Covid are all about…)
"Only those who had Covid... One thing is to have Covid and then work at home office mode. Another thing is to have Covid and then run at great intensity. That's what...That's different! His work machine is the player himself! And today - I was told a few moments ago - there will be cars honking to protest the crisis at Benfica. There should be a honking but to give us love! To me and to my players! And to the president (of Benfica, Luis Filipe Vieira)! That's what should be done! You don't know what we have gone through in the last two and half months!"
'You don't know what we have gone through' - Jesus lashes out in furious rant
Aaaaaaaaaaand in a segue slicker than a Bukayo Saka assist, speaking of epic press conference rants, here’s the granddaddy of them all, Giovanni Trappatoni’s bile-filled assault on his own players at Bayern Munich in 1998.
“WHAT ALLOWS STRUNTZ???” – Indeed, Trap, indeed.
It’s the Nottingham Forest v Derby, er, derby tonight while the Premier League takes a rare night off. There’s a big weekend ahead though, headlined by Chelsea v Manchester United at 4:30pm on Sunday.
Andi Thomas is a generational talent, and although he hasn't yet assisted Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, it's on his to-do list after writing Monday's Warm-Up
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