By STEVE DOUGLAS – Japan Today
From savior to scapegoat in 10 nerve-shredding minutes, Arsenal captain Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang went through the full range of emotions as his team was knocked out of the Europa League in agonizing fashion on Thursday.
On a night when Portuguese sides Porto, Benfica and Sporting Lisbon were all eliminated and one of the country’s recent exports – Bruno Fernandes – led Manchester United’s progress to the last 16, the biggest drama happened at Emirates Stadium and Aubameyang was at the center of it.
The Gabon striker scored a fabulous scissor-kick in the 113th minute to equalize for Arsenal at 1-1 against Olympiakos and put the English team 2-1 ahead on aggregate in the second leg of the round of 32.
When Youssef El Arabi prodded home a speculative cross in the 119th, Olympiakos led on away goals but there was still time for one last chance for Arsenal, and it fell to its most lethal striker in the third and final minute of stoppage time.
This time, though, Aubameyang somehow managed to shoot wide from a central position at the edge of the six-yard box with the goal at his mercy.
Aubameyang fell to his knees and covered his face with his hands, having not long earlier been mobbed by his jubilant teammates after his acrobatic goal.
“I feel very, very bad,” he said. “It can happen but I do not know how I missed this chance. I was tired, I had some cramps but it is not an excuse.”
England will have to be content with two teams in the last 16, led by Man United and its new star signing Fernandes.
Fernandes, the Portugal playmaker, continues to prove that the 80 million euros ($88 million) he might end up costing United should be money well spent.
He stroked home a penalty following his signature skipping run-up, then had a hand in United’s two other first-half goals in a 5-0 win over 10-man Club Brugge. Fernandes had already left the field at Old Trafford, to another huge ovation, by the time Fred added the fourth and fifth goals to complete a 6-1 aggregate win.
Fernandes had made a seamless transition to the Premier League following his January move from Sporting, scoring and assisting in United’s win over Watford at the weekend.
Brugge was the architect of its downfall, with defender Simon Deli getting red-carded for handling a shot with a goalkeeper-like save to hand Fernandes his penalty chance in the 27th minute. Odion Ighalo scored his first goal for United to make it 2-0 before Scott McTominay added the third.
Wolverhampton is the second English team through, beating Espanyol 6-3 on aggregate despite losing the second leg 3-2.
While Fernandes enchanted United fans at Old Trafford, there wasn’t a single supporter inside San Siro to see Inter Milan advance to the last 16.
Inter beat Ludogorets 2-1 in an empty stadium as a precaution because of the virus outbreak in Italy. The voices of the players could be heard clearly in a game that saw Inter score through Cristiano Biraghi and Romelu Lukaku and progress 4-1 on aggregate.
Ludogorets’ players arrived at Milan’s Malpensa airport on Wednesday wearing protective face masks and gloves. Most wore the protective gear as they entered the stadium on Thursday, too.
Italy has reported a total of 650 cases of the new coronavirus, up from 400 on Wednesday evening and three a week ago. Three more people with the virus died in 24 hours, bringing Italy’s toll to 15.
There are no Portuguese teams left in either the Europa League or Champions League this season.
It’s the first time since the introduction of the current competition format in 2003-04 that Portugal has failed to be represented in the last 16 of either competition.
Benfica led the Portuguese exodus, drawing 3-3 at home to Shakhtar Donetsk to go out 5-4 on aggregate. Porto lost 3-1 at home to Bayer Leverkusen to be eliminated 5-2 on aggregate, while Sporting failed to protect a 3-1 lead from the first leg against Istanbul Basaksehir, losing the return match 4-1.
Ajax, a Champions League semifinalist last season, is out of Europe altogether before the end of February this time despite beating Getafe 2-1. The Spanish team went through 3-2 on aggregate.
Sevilla, a winner of Europe’s second-tier competition five times in the last 14 years, is making another run at the trophy, advancing on away goals – 1-1 on aggregate – after a 0-0 draw with CFR Cluj.
Other teams to advance include Roma, Wolfsburg and FC Copenhagen.