Three minutes – three minutes – stood between Arsenal and Europa League elimination on away goals from a tie where both legs were played at neutral venues.
It would have summed up Arsenal’s season had the Gunners lost their only remaining chances of silverware in such circumstances, but when the chips were down, Mikel Arteta’s team produced a comeback so spirited it may just salvage something from what has been a season to forget so far.
Almost a year to the day since his criminal last-gasp miss saw Arsenal bow out of the Europa League at the hands of Olympiakos at the same stage last season, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang scored a late winner at the home of the Greek club.
It was the kind of poetic plot only football can produce, and after such an arduous campaign Arteta and his squad had every right to drink in every second.
“That is to be fair the first image that came through my mind when he scored,” the Gunners boss said after Arsenal’s thrilling late fightback. “This is the beautiful thing about football, if you keep going you always have the chance to put it right.”
Those words ring true with Aubameyang personally, but also Arsenal as a collective, for there have been tough times to endure this season and yet the resolve of Arteta’s squad remains strong.
It could quite well have crumbled in Greek capital like the ruins of Acropolis, but it stood firm to see Arsenal live to fight another day.
As if it has not been said enough, fitness and fatigue will continue to play a big part in the remainder of the season.
A few eyebrows were raised at Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s team selection on Thursday evening for a tie Manchester United had complete control of the tie – “We’re 4-0 up…“ was actually trending on Twitter before kick-off – as United made just four changes from the side that beat Newcastle in the Premier League, including a start for star man Bruno Fernandes.
But Solskjaer made full use of the five-subs rule in Europe, including three at half-time, as United showed the depth in their squad goes beyond their registered Premier League players.
Shola Shoretire became their youngest-ever player in European competition having turned 17 just 23 days ago, while Amad Diallo, just 18, made his Old Trafford debut.
In fact, five out of the 10 outfield players to finish the game were academy graduates as United’s proud tradition of bringing through youth continues. But interestingly, Marcus Rashford, one of those graduates, became the first Premier League player to make 40 appearances this season in all competitions, showing the need to rotate.
Solskjaer will continue to take this competition seriously after four “hurtful” semi-final defeats in just over a year, but the opportunity to prioritise one over the other shows no sign of appearing any time soon.
United’s next seven games over three-and-a-half weeks before the international break – including Premier League games against Chelsea, Man City and West Ham, plus the Europa League last 16 two-legger and Leicester in the FA Cup last eight – may define their season.
102 – There were 102 goals scored in total in the Last 32 of this season’s UEFA Europa League – the most in a single knockout round since the competition’s rebranding in 2009-10 (previously 95 goals in last season’s Last 32). Feast. #UEL pic.twitter.com/3hO0BZXT40
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) February 25, 2021
Dumped out of the FA Cup in bizarre circumstances at the hands of Everton and with their top-four challenge on its knees after a run of just one Premier League win in six, whichever way you look at it, it’s been a difficult few weeks for Tottenham.
But Spurs’ struggles pale into insignificance compared to the tumultuous campaign endured by Dele Alli. Once the darling of Mauricio Pochettino’s heady tenure in north London, the England international has been frozen out by his successor Jose Mourinho.
Serious questions have surfaced over his long-term future at the club but having failed to secure a route out in the January transfer window, Alli looked to have put that disappointment firmly behind him with what was the best night of his reintegration into the Spurs squad, if not his season.
Alli’s stunning overhead kick will live long in the memory and served as a reminder that form is temporary but class is permanent, while his link-up play provided another Europa League goal for Carlos Vinicius and, crucially, the platform for Gareth Bale to take another stride towards the Gareth Bale of old.
Spurs’ emphatic 8-1 aggregate victory may have come against the lowest-ranked opposition left in the Europa League but the job was done with so much to spare, and with Alli and Bale looking back to their best there may just be life in Tottenham’s campaign yet.
Life could hardly be better for Rangers right now after they booked a spot in the last 16 in style by thumping five past Royal Antwerp at Ibrox, to go with their four from the first leg. A first Scottish Premiership title since 2011 is just weeks away and Steven Gerrard’s side are not a team any club left in the tournament will want to draw.
First and foremost, if Rangers produce the sort of attacking displays that they have managed in Europe so far, any defence will struggle to keep them out. They have scored 22 goals in just eight games since the start of the group stages in October.
The front three of Ryan Kent, Ianis Hagi and Alfredo Morelos all impressed but it was the Colombia striker who stole the show as he had a hand in all four of the goals scored when he was on the pitch. He scored the first, produced a neat flick to set Nathan Patterson free for the second and cruised past his man before finding Kent for the third. It was an irresistible display.
On top of their threats going forward, the Gers’ focus may well be solely on the Europa League by the time the next round is played. They will be crowned Scottish champions, that is not up for debate, and when they are, Gerrard can afford to rest his players for the big European games.
Every indication is Rangers are here to stay, and they will be well worth watching while they are.
It was a disastrous night for Leicester against Slavia Prague.
Despite choosing to rotate his squad, Brendan Rodgers would have had high hopes of finally ending his hoodoo of failing to reach the last 16 of the Europa League.
5 – Leicester manager Brendan Rodgers has been eliminated from all five of his UEFA Europa League knockout ties as a manager (all last 32) – with Liverpool in 2012-13 and 2014-15, Celtic in 2017-18 and 2018-19 and Leicester this season. Disappointment. #UEL pic.twitter.com/mLesa9CHgI
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) February 25, 2021
However, those hopes soon disintegrated in front of his very eyes as the Czech side booked their place in Friday’s last-16 draw.
There will be no getting away from this disappointment. It will take a few days for it to sink in for Rodgers and his players, but they still have plenty of objectives to reach this season.
It was around this time last season when the wheels started to come off their bid for Champions League football and they ultimately finished fifth.
This defeat will hurt but all is not lost for Leicester.
“I don’t want to give too many excuses. [We had] players not available tonight at the top end of the field. However I still expected us to show up more. They’ll learn from it.”
With Rodgers in charge, the club are on an upward curve. They remain third in the Premier League and also face an FA Cup quarter-final with Manchester United next month.
There’s plenty still to play for and now must ensure this blow does not cause lasting damage, starting against Arsenal in the Premier League on Sunday.
The draw will take place on Friday, February 26 in Nyon’s House of European Football at 12pm UK time. You will be able to follow it across Sky Sports’ digital platforms.
Europa League 20/21: Key dates
- March 11 & 18: Round of 16
- April 8 & 15: Quarter-finals
- April 29 & May 6: Semi-finals
- May 26: Final (Gdansk, Poland)