Crestfallen Valencia manager Marcelino surmised it better than any of the watching journalists could. “They have two very good strikers and I do not know how many millions they cost. If you make even the smallest mistake at this level, you get punished.”
Do not let the impressive-sounding result, or even the prospect of an impending European final, completely deceive you. The slipshod Arsenal side that have lost four of their past five Premier League matches have not completely disappeared from view. But despite their now well-documented inadequacies, the class of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette was enough to put Arsenal in complete control of this Europa League semi-final.
Marcelino might not know the exact figure, but surely he would not be surprised to learn that Aubameyang and Lacazette cost the grand total of £108.7m. They were outstanding here: Lacazette becoming the first Arsenal player to score twice in a European semi-final since Charlie George and — more surprisingly — Steve Bould, before Aubameyang added that potentially decisive third in added time, Mouctar Diakhaby’s scrappy opener long since forgotten.
“I hope that goal will be important,” Aubameyang commented afterwards. “We started not so good but we had a good reaction and I think in total we played very well. We started a bit nervous because we had lost the last three games — but I think that’s normal. We are human. And we can be proud of the reaction.”
Although improved here, an anxious opening fifteen minutes demonstrated that Arsenal are not completely over those recent problems. Once again this season they started at a snail’s pace, with Emery lasting less than a minute before springing out of his seat in frustration. Does any manager spend less time contentedly sat in his dugout? Valencia sensed their opportunity and gamely padded forward, almost taking the lead when Daniel Parejo spotted Rodrigo in a bewildering amount of space at the back stick.
The former Bolton Wanderers loanee selflessly nodded the ball back across the face of goal, but Ezequiel Garay panicked, spooning the ball high over Petr Cech’s goal and into the damp night air. Arsenal had been warned.
But that did not mean they had learned their lesson. Just moments later they found themselves with a corner and wisely decided to repeat their trick: Parejo skimming the ball to Rodrigo, again waiting in his very own pocket of the Emirates. This time his header was directed at Diakhaby, who somehow managed to climb over three bungling Arsenal defenders to head home.
Emery sank to his haunches. The Spanish commentators shouted the word ‘GOAL’ until their voices cracked. And the Emirates, up until that point a cold concrete bowl of indifference, began to grizzle miserably. Arsenal’s season was in real danger of sinking without trace. “I think we adapted very well,” Marcelino later said of his team’s start. “We started off by taking the lead and had a lot of chances, and even until the end I thought it was a positive result.”
Enter Messrs Aubameyang and Lacazette, who combined to make the difference. The Frenchman’s first-half slide-rule pass to his strike partner was a thing of beauty, perfectly weighted and struck with clinical precision, with Aubameyang racing through on goal. Instead of shooting he deftly turned Facundo Roncagli and waited, with Lacazette quick to arrive to side-foot home and level the score.
Valencia’s defence didn’t do much better for the second, as Lacazette doubled his tally five minutes later. This time it was Granit Xhaka who spotted the gap, his sumptuously arched cross disappearing over the head of the hapless Roncagli for Lacazette to nod towards goal. Valencia goalkeeper Neto did well to palm the attempt onto the post, only for the ball to drift over the line before he could properly push it clear.
“It was a very good performance from them, and from every player on the team,” was Emery’s post-match verdict. “I am proud of them and today we can be very happy. But I have already told them the second leg will be difficult. It is a good result at home but I still consider it to be a 50-50 for the two teams.”
Perhaps that was true before Aubameyang’s late goal, a scuffed volley at the back post from Sead Kolasinac’s looping cross, but the chips are thoroughly stacked in Arsenal’s favour now. Valencia — sixth in La Liga, still reeling from an unexpected home defeat by mid-table Eibar — ultimately did little to suggest that they can overturn a two goal deficit at the Mestalla next week.
It was at this stage of last season’s tournament that Arsenal fell, of course. But Aubameyang insists Arsenal are a stronger team than the one that crashed out to Atletico Madrid twelve months ago. “We stepped in the semi-finals last year but we have learned from those errors and hopefully we will not do the same. We will give everything to qualify for the Champions League.”
It certainly looks to be their best hope of reaching the promised land, given that they currently trail fourth-place Chelsea by two points. And after the Blues’ 1-1 draw at Eintracht Frankfurt, don’t bet against the two teams meeting in a high-stakes London derby in the fan-friendly location of Baku, Azerbaijan in four weeks time.
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