Olympique de Marseille will look forward with confidence to the round of 16 second leg against SL Benfica after Hatem Ben Arfa scored a late leveller in Lisbon – "It almost felt like a victory."
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Olympique de Marseille goalscorer Hatem Ben Arfa said the 1-1 draw at SL Benfica felt "almost like a victory" after his last-minute equaliser put the Ligue 1 side in the ascendancy in their UEFA Europa League round of 16 tie.
Despite giving an energetic, hard-working performance to frustrate their opponents in their Lisbon fortress, Marseille looked destined to be nursing a first-leg deficit after Maxi Pereira pounced on goalkeeper Steve Mandanda's error with 14 minutes left. Didier Deschamps' charges refused to let their heads drop, however, and as time ticked away Laurent Bonnart broke down the right and delivered a perfect cross which Ben Arfa – brought on moments before Benfica's breakthrough – headed beyond Júlio César.
"There's no doubt that an away goal changes everything – 1-0 and 1-1 are two completely different results and this means we won't be approaching the second leg in the same way at all," said Ben Arfa. "All the better for us that we were able to equalise. It's not a victory but it feels almost like a victory, because we got that away goal and we know how difficult that makes life for our opponents. Now it's up to us to finish the job at home and qualify."
The 23-year-old winger, whose recent renaissance earned him a return to the France squad earlier this month, also praised the resilience running through the Marseille side. "That's what was so good," he said. "We believed in our chances right to the end. We showed character and that's the spirit we must have if we want to win things."
Ben Arfa likewise lauded his team's success in largely spiking Benfica's guns, Jorge Jesus's men having won all five of their previous home encounters in Europe this term – scoring 17 goals and conceding just one along the way. "They're a very attacking team and they can make the difference at any moment," he said. "We were just able to stop them from playing and that was important."
"We're almost there," added forward Brandão, looking forward to the return leg at the Stade Vélodrome next Thursday. "We got a very good result here. The second match will be even more important and we'll be playing at home, but we'll respect Benfica, just like we were respected here. We're looking forward to sealing our qualification."