It’s crunch time for Arsenal as they prepare for their Europa League semi-final second leg against Villarreal as their European hopes for next season hang in the balance.
The Gunners trail 2-1 from the first leg in Spain last week, but Nicolas Pepe’s penalty handed Arsenal an away goal lifeline that seemed almost impossible after an hour.
A gritty determination and resilience sees Thursday’s second leg at The Emirates finely poised, with Arsenal aiming to reach their second Europa League final in three years.
Their last appearance in the 2018/19 final came under Unai Emery – now the manager of Villarreal and with a sensational history in the Europa League.
Securing European football next season via the Premier League is looking like a difficult ask, with a Europa League victory Arsenal’s best chance of a Champions League return for the first time in five years.
But if Arsenal are unable to find a comeback victory against Villarreal at The Emirates, they are poised to miss out on European football for the first time in 25 years.
Arteta: We have to embrace challenge
Arteta says his side must tackle their semi-final second leg head on and emphasised the huge opportunity Arsenal have to win a trophy.
He said: “It’s time to change it [the tie]. We have to embrace the challenge and the opportunity we have ahead. I think it’s the 10th time that the club has been in a European semi-final, so it doesn’t happen very often. We have to take the opportunity tomorrow and earn the right to be in the final.
It’s a reality. It’s not what we want, obviously, but there are a lot of things that have happened in that period, for many reasons. One is because the level is being raised to a level that is unprecedented in this league and we are not the only club that has been out of that. But obviously, we’re not going to accept that situation and we want to change it straight away. This season, we still have the opportunity to do that.
“I’m not sure how they’re preparing for the game. I think we spoke about this before the first leg and obviously, we conceded an early goal and that changed the game. Then there was a second one from a set play as well. We then had to play 40 minutes with 10 men and we’ll see what happens. We have an idea of what they might try to do and we know what we want to do in order to get through. Then, of course, there are many games within the game tomorrow.
“We need to play better than we did in Villarreal. We’re going to start with 11 players, something that we didn’t have a chance to do in the last game and then we’ll see what happens. There’ll be many factors that come into it.
“It’s a massive game for everybody but in particular for the club because we are here representing a football club and our fans. What we want to do is to do it in the best way by winning trophies. If we win tomorrow, we will be much closer to getting another trophy. This is the only aim and the purpose of us being here.
“It’s a big moment again. Not for me, but for the club and for everything that has happened in the last two years and the last months. All the instability that we’ve been living with for many different reasons. So I think it will be really important and a big step forward if we are able to be in that final and have the opportunity to win that trophy.”
Can Pepe shine in the Europa League again?
Pepe loves the Europa League. He has flourished in the competition this season, starting in nine of the 13 games and only failing to feature in one match (3-2 win against Benfica). In comparison, he has started in just 13 Premier League games this term.
But more importantly – his European goal involvements have been vital. He scored or assisted in all but one group game (4-1 win against Rapid Vienna), and has found the net in his last three knockout games.
In the quarter-finals against Slavia Prague, he made an instant impact in his 12 minutes off the bench, firing Arsenal ahead in the late 1-1 draw. He went on to score and assist in the second leg, before nabbing a potentially vital away goal in Villarreal last Thursday.
In fact, Pepe has registered 10 goal involvements in the Europa League this season (6 goals, 4 assists) – more than any other player – and only three different Arsenal players have scored more goals in a single season in major European competition than Pepe (Ian Wright – 9 in 1994/95, Thierry Henry – 8 in 1999-2000, 7 in both 2001/02 and 2002/03 and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang – 8 in 2018/19).
There is another tasty undercurrent to this Villarreal tie too. Emery revealed in May 2020 that he had not wanted to sign Pepe while Arsenal manager, instead preferring Wilfried Zaha.
He told The Guardian: “We signed Pepe. He’s a good player but we didn’t know his character and he needs time, patience. I favoured someone who knew the league and wouldn’t need to adapt.
“Zaha won games on his own: Tottenham, Manchester City, us. Incredible performances. I told them: ‘This is the player I know and want.’ I met Zaha and he wanted to come. The club decided Pepe was one for the future.”
But with his impressive European performances this season, including last week at La Ceramica, Pepe will be hoping to have the last say against his former manager.
Arsenal following similar pattern
Arsenal haven’t made it easy for themselves in the Europa League knockout stages this season. After winning all of their group games, the Gunners have lost or drawn at least one of their legs since the round of 32.
It bodes well after a first leg defeat in Villarreal. Manu Trigueros and Raul Albiol fired the hosts into a 2-0 lead inside half an hour, before Dani Ceballos was sent off but an improved last 30 minutes from Arsenal saw them hit back.
Pepe scored from the penalty spot – Arsenal had another penalty chalked off by VAR in the first half – before former Tottenham midfielder Etienne Capoue was sent off for Villarreal.
Arsenal results in the 2020/21 Europa League knockout rounds
|Benfica 1-1 Arsenal||Last 32 first leg||Draw|
|Arsenal 3-2 Benfica||Last 32 second leg||Won|
|Olympiakos 1-3 Arsenal||Last 16 first leg||Won|
|Arsenal 0-1 Olympiakos||Last 16 second leg||Lost|
|Arsenal 1-1 Slavia Prague||Quarter-final first leg||Draw|
|Slavia Prague 0-4 Arsenal||Quarter-final second leg||Win|
|Villarreal 2-1 Arsenal||Semi-final first leg||Lost|
Arsenal have also progressed from each of their last two European knockout ties where they lost the first leg – 0-1 against BATE Borisov in February 2019 in the Europa League and 1-3 versus Rennes in March 2019 in the same competition.
However, Arsenal have won only one of their three home knockout games and have failed to win in their last five matches at the Emirates since a 2-1 win against Tottenham in the North London derby.
“There have been many factors,” Arteta said when asked about defensives issues at home. “Errors has been one of the main ones. We have conceded some set-pieces as well and with other teams not creating much, they have managed to score a goal.”
Will Arteta play a striker?
One criticism Arteta faced in the first leg was starting the game without a recognised striker. Emile Smith Rowe started through the middle, supported by Pepe, Martin Odegaard and Bukayo Saka in attack.
After the game, Arteta explained that it was a decision he made for the game, but after conceding inside four minutes, his plan was changed.
When asked about last week’s dissection of his tactics, Arteta said: “Criticism is part of the job and normally comes when you lose. We all know that.”
Arsenal captain Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang returned to the bench for the trip to Villarreal after recovering from malaria, making a late substitute appearance, and started against Newcastle on Saturday.
He scored one and assisted another during the 2-0 Premier League win and could be in line to feature on Thursday, with Arteta saying: “This game always gives you another opportunity. If you are there, then you are ready for the taking. He can turn things around really quickly so hopefully we can see that tomorrow.”
Aubameyang also spoke to the media ahead of the second leg, and said: “I think I was really motivated in these types of games because a few times I have received some criticism of not being involved in big games, so I wanted to show people that it’s not true.
Aubameyang is a killer. He was, he is and he will always be. He has been through a process of being
out of the team because of the illness he has had but he is back. He is there to work, to defend the team and give everything for the team, hoping he can perform at the top level and if that happens he is going to be very difficult to stop. We expect to find the best Aubameyang possible, the same with Granit Xhaka, I think he is a great person, a really great footballer. He was the top scorer in the Premier League when I was there, he is really
good physically and is a killer, like I said.
“This is why I am really excited to play this game tomorrow because it is a big game and it’s a big moment for all of us. Hopefully we deliver again.
“For sure it will be one of [the biggest games of my Arsenal career]. Definitely this season is the most important game and we know that we have to win this game.
“It is a big opportunity to go through for us to get to the final, we play at home and this is maybe the biggest of my Arsenal career.”
Another option for Arteta could be the return of Alexandre Lacazette, who has overcome a hamstring issue and may also be involved.
Both sides will be without suspended players Ceballos and Capoue after their respective red cards in the first leg.
Kieran Tierney could make his return from a knee injury for his first Arsenal appearance since April.
David Luiz made his first start since March against Newcastle, but early in the second half, picked up another injury that saw him replaced by Calum Chambers. However, Arteta did not provide an additional update on his fitness, and Arsenal will continue to assess the defender ahead of Thursday’s game.
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- Villarreal have progressed from 15 of their 16 two-legged ties in major European competition when winning the first leg – the only exception was in the 2015-16 UEFA Europa League semi-final, when they went out to Liverpool despite winning the first leg.
- Arsenal are without a win in their last two home games in European competition (D1 L1), after winning 11 out of 13 before that, with the Gunners hoping to avoid going three on home soil without victory in Europe for the first time since September 2003 (6 games).
- Villarreal are unbeaten in 13 games in European competition (W12 D1), winning each of their last nine and last suffering defeat in April 2019 (0-2 v Valencia in the UEFA Europa League quarter-final 2nd leg).
- Arsenal have lost just one of their 11 knockout clashes with Spanish opponents on home soil (W7 D3), with that sole defeat coming in February 2016 against Barcelona in the Champions League Last 16 (0-2).
- Villarreal’s Gerard Moreno has either scored or assisted in each of his seven starts in the UEFA Europa League this season (6 goals, 3 assists), with only one player providing goal involvements in more consecutive starts in a single season in the competition since 2009-10 (Willian – 9 with Chelsea in 18-19).