A fortnight ago, Arsenal had been plotting to slip into Europe’s elite via the back door. But after the first 70 minutes of their Europa League semi-final first leg against Villarreal, their hopes of keeping the same company next season looked dead and buried.
Goals from Manu Trigueros and Raul Albio had given Villarreal a comfortable 2-0 lead, one as deserving as it was straightforward in its acquisition. But a lifeline in the form of a 73rd-minute penalty from Nicolas Pepe has given Arsenal something to cling onto. A 2-1 defeat and an away goal was the best outcome after a low-quality but highly entertaining ding dong in Spain.
Nothing about this was “Super”. Indeed, most of the entertainment came through clumsiness, including the two red cards that first gave Villarreal the man advantage before the 10 versus 10 of the last 10 minutes. Dani Ceballos was sent off first before former Tottenham Hotspur and Watford midfielder Etienne Capoue received his marching orders. Ceballos’s dismissal at 2-0 felt ominous, and it reflects poorly on him that it wasn’t. Arsenal were the better side as soon as he was off the pitch.
Here were two teams out of sync in their respective leagues. Villarreal, seventh in La Liga, with two wins in their last five in La Liga. Likewise, the 10th-place Premier League form had just one win in five, the last of that sequence a 1-0 defeat to Everton at the Emirates Stadium. A passionless, dreary display add odds with the passion and vibrancy of the protest taking place just outside.
Similar scenes, albeit with far more positive undertones greeted Villarreal as they arrived at the Estadio de la Cerámica. As Unai Emery began considering the opportunity to stick one on his former employers, the man who ultimately replaced him was putting the finishing touches on a starting XI that required a second-look.
Up top was Emile Smithe Rowe, a false nine when three authentic ones were in the squad. Perhaps it was overthinking on Mikel Arteta’s part, wary of the midfield threat posed by The Yellow Submarine. But it did not take long for concern to quickly switch to the other side of the pitch.
Within five minutes, the cons of Granit Xhaka at left back were brutally exposed (again). Allowing Samu Chukwueze time to set himself, the Nigerian winger drove into the box then forced his way between both Xhaka and Ceballos, arriving to offer support to his teammate five seconds too late. Trigueros, right on time, met the ball with a swept right-foot finish into the far corner.
The next error was on the collective on half an hour, though perhaps Pablo Mari was the defender at fault, passively allowing a corner to make its way to Gerard Moreno on the edge of the six-yard box. His header was tame but convincing enough to redirect to Albiol to volley home uninhibited at the back post. Another awry contact from Moreno, this time on his left foot from outside the box, spurned the chance to make it three just two minutes later.
What threat Arsenal offered to their opponents in the first half was carried within a single moment that wasn’t 10 minutes before the break. The opportunity for a reprieve looked to have arrived out of the blue with a penalty after Spurs loanee Juan Foyth felled Nicolas Pepe in the box. The contact merited a foul, but VAR spotted an accidental but consequential handball from Pepe earlier in the phase of play.
It was only then that Arteta pulled one of his frontmen out of the bag - Martinelli replacing Martin Odegaard in a bid to offer a more direct outlet. And it worked.
The greater threat meant even a man short, Arsenal’s advances into Villarreal territory carried more purpose. And by the time Saka dribbled into the opposition box, yellow shirts were tetchy. An trip by Trigueros gave the Gunners a legitimate shot from the spot, which Pepe sent down the middle.
Just like that, the tensions flipped. Villarreal got that little bit more frenetic, disconcerted by Arsenal’s rally that had come so soon after Moreno had been thwarted brilliantly by Bernd Leno to prevent 3-0. Those nerves ramped up when Capoue picked up his second booking.
The last notable action for the match almost flipped it completely. A threaded ball from Partey found Pierre Emerick-Aubameyang, an 85th-minute substitute, whose turn was neat but the finish was hampered by losing his standing foot. The shot he got away was straight at goalkeeper Gerónimo Rulli. A surer contact and Arsenal could have got off scot-free.
Regardless, as the full-time whistle blew, the prevailing sense was that Arteta and Arsenal got away with one on the most important night of the season so far.
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