Arsenal through after just about avoiding repeat of last year's Olympiacos calamity
Europa League - Round of 16 Second Leg
Arsenal (0) 0
Olympiacos (0) 1 El-Arabi 51
Arsenal are through to the Europa League quarter-finals – but only after very nearly making another gigantic rickets of it against the same opposition who dumped them out last year.
Youssef El-Arabi, the man whose late winner put the Gunners just over 12 months ago, came close to bagging a first-half goal and then put the Greeks ahead on the night early in the second half.
They had chances to make it even more uncomfortable for Mikel Arteta’s men, but the hosts eventually prevailed, protecting their 3-1 lead from the first leg.
They spurned several decent chances to make the early evening encounter much less fraught, bit it was a case of job done, even if they were not that convincing, as the Greeks often bossed midfield and never stopped believing they might repeat last year’s heroics at Emirates Stadium.
This time, at least, he Gunners, who did not contrive to throw away the advantage of a first leg lead gained in the away tie, though they did their best to make life difficult for themselves.
In that fateful return leg of last season, Arsenal conceded a late goal to go out on away goals – but only then after Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang had missed an absolute sitter right at the death which would have seen the north Londoners progress in the competition.
Armed with a 3-1 victory from the first leg this time, it should really have been a walk in the park, but the Gunners were given a nasty flashback when El-Arabi rushed onto a long clearance from keeper Jose Sa, outpacing Gabriel to leave the goal at his mercy. Only an outstretched foot from Bernd Leno prevented the Greeks from taking the lead.
Aubameyang badly wanted to make amends for last year’s flop and had the added mission of wanting to atone for the tardiness which caused him to miss Sunday’s North London derby win as a disciplinary measure imposed by his boss.
Yet he was left frustrated. The Arsenal skipper fired one shot over the bar in the first half when he should have found the target and raced through from half way 10 minutes from time, only to dink the ball wide of the keeper who came out to meet him.
There was also an attempted back-flick which was saved after sub Gabriel Martinelli had played in a fine cross from the left.
The Greeks again nearly stole an advantage on the night when a glancing near-post header from Jose Holebas – once of Watford’s parish – flashed wide at the start of the second half.
But El-Arabi did find the net after 51 minutes after being allowed to drift inside David Luiz before firing in a deflected shot past Leno off Gabriel.
The tension rose a little more when Nicolas Pepe blasted a great chance from a fine Kieran Tierney cross into a prone Emile Smith Rowe – the ball ballooning over – and more chances went begging.
But the Greeks were down to 10 men for the last 10 minutes after Ousseynou Ba picked up two yellow cards in the same incident – first for throwing an arm in the face of Martinelli, then for showing dissent by thumping the ball away.
The quarter-final draw will be eagerly anticipated – even if Spurs are not among the other eight clubs left in it - having been dumped out of the competition by Dinamo Zagreb in Croatia. But whoever the Gunners get, they will need to play considerably better than they did tonight to have any chance of advancing.
Gunners: Leno – Bellerin (Chambers 82), David Luiz, Gabriel, Tierney – Smith Rowe (Martinelli 81), Ceballos (Odegaard 57), (Partey 57), Xhaka, Pepe – Aubameyang. Subs not used: Ryan, Okwonko, Lacazette, Odegaard, Holding, Cedric, Mari, Nelson, Nketiah
Olympiacos: Jose Sa – Sokratis, Ba, Holebas – Androutsos (Bruma 62), M’Vila, Camara, Reabciuk (Lala 85) – Masouras (Randjelovic 63), El-Arabi, Fortounis (Bouchalakis 85). Subs not used: Karagyris, Tzolakis, Vrousai, Drager, Lala, Sourlis