Progress to the quarter-finals for Arsenal and reintegration to the starting lineup for Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang: all things considered, perhaps you could say it was timely. It was certainly not straightforward, though, and they were made to sweat during the second half after Youssef El-Arabi scored for an Olympiakos side who briefly suggested they might far outdo the turnaround they completed here in last season’s round of 32.
Aubemeyang had been prompt in arriving at the stadium this time but he missed two excellent opportunities to give the night a more comfortable hue and it was a reminder that, in both boxes, Arsenal still need to discover the composure required to make them convincing contenders for the trophy.
In the end they went through in relative comfort although the Greek champions may wonder what might have happened if El-Arabi, their goalscorer from the first leg and Arsenal’s nemesis from horrors past, had scored an even earlier chance when clean through in the 20th minute. Bernd Leno deflected the ball wide with his knee; given Arsenal’s well-documented problems with game management it felt like a blessing that their visitors did not gobble up the first bone they threw.
Olympiakos had needed to be clinical if they were to hold the smallest hope of a heist even more audacious than that dramatic, traumatic away-goals win 13 months ago. They required three goals as a bare minimum but merely leaving their own half felt like an achievement until El-Arabi’s first opening. Arteta had no intention of suffering a repeat humiliation so went almost as strong as he could, given Bukayo Saka and Willian were ruled out through injury.
Thomas Partey was given a rest and so was the in-form Martin Ødegaard. Dani Ceballos seems the less likely of the two Real Madrid loanees to be here next season but took Ødegaard’s No 10 position and, cajoled excitably from the side by Arteta, was integral to a press that rarely gave Olympiakos anywhere to go. They were pegged back from the start and Sokratis Papastathopoulos, an Arsenal player until January, took an audibly painful knock when Emile Smith Rowe inadvertently clipped his lower leg after shooting.
Ceballos was exerting the kind of influence he has struggled to discover on a regular basis. He created the first real chance in the 18th minute, weighting a ball through the inside-right channel to meet Nicolas Pépé’s run. Pépé reached the ball just ahead of José Sá, the Olympiakos goalkeeper, and it ricocheted free with the goal unattended. He shot from a tight angle but Sokratis, feeling better now, managed to deflect it into the side netting via both ankles.
Then came Leno’s save from El-Arabi, the glimpse afforded after a giant clearance from Sá had sailed beyond the home defence. Shortly afterwards, Ceballos worked deftly again to play Aubameyang through. The captain should have done better than toe-poke over although, in his defence, such an attempt proved necessary because the ball caught slightly between his feet.
The first-half entertainment ended there but proceedings caught alight, to some extent at least, following the restart. Olympiakos had re-emerged with more consistent menace than any of their earlier offering, Kostas Fortounis twice spurning half-openings and seeing a corner flicked just beyond El-Arabi before the centre-forward made an opportunity count. Arsenal were far too open when a move broke down deep inside the Olympiakos half and, after Giorgos Masouras fed him, El-Arabi was able to cut into the box and beat Leno via a deflection off Gabriel.
Arsenal had completely seized up and it was no surprise to see Partey and Ødegaard summoned almost immediately. Olympiakos, spurred on by a boisterous entourage, had the wind in their sails although Arsenal might have steadied themselves if Ødegaard had not inadvertently deflected a Pépé piledriver over with his head.
Instead there were tense moments, if nothing to stop the heartbeat in its tracks, as Olympiakos threw men forward. A spell of heavy pressure around the 70-minute mark saw Arsenal reduced to a series of slashed clearances.
When they created openings on the break, Ødegaard lifted over and Pepe shot weakly at Sá. Much more surprisingly, Aubameyang chipped wide when given half the pitch to run into.
It was a glaring miss but Olympiakos cooked their own goose moments later when Ousseynou Ba, fresh from being booked for a foul on the substitute Gabriel Martinelli, received a second yellow card for apparent dissent. The away coach, Pedro Martins, expressed his frustration with such force that he almost lost his footing; Arsenal could feel relieved that, even at their most skittish, they could not go wrong from here and Aubameyang almost got his goal when Sá superbly saved his backheel at the death.