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28 October 2021
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Arsenal Defeated By Villarreal In First Leg Tie

Sloppy in defence and largely without a plan

in attack, for long spells this was an

Arsenal performance that would have felt

rather familiar to Unai Emery. Their former

head coach oversaw plenty of these matches

during the final months of his reign in north

London, and for more than an hour he inflicted

another one upon Arsenal in this Europa

League semi-final.

With Arsenal trailing by two goals, and

reduced to 10 men following the dismissal of

Dani Ceballos, it looked as if Emery was about

to bring an end to their hopes of turning this

season into an unlikely success. The master of

the Europa League has a knack for winning

these sorts of knockout ties, even if his

Villarreal side do not.

Such is the dramatic beauty of European

football, though, that these two-legged clashes

can swing on just a few pivotal moments. Mikel

Arteta’s team regularly veer between

disastrous and devastating, sometimes within

the same match, and after such a poor start

they fought back to score a crucial away goal,

out of nothing, in Spain.

Nicolas Pepe’s second-half penalty, won by the

brilliance of Bukayo Saka, restored belief to

Arsenal and meant that this tie is still there for

the taking next week. Manu Trigueros and Raul

Albiol had scored early for Villarreal but

Emery’s team could not build on that

advantage, as Etienne Capoue soon joined

Ceballos in being shown two yellow cards.

Despite the defeat, the overriding emotion for

Arsenal will be relief. They were so poor in the

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first hour that Villarreal might have run away

with it before the visitors had landed their first

meaningful blow. “After the way the game

developed, you have to take the result,” said

Arteta. “If you have to lose, it is probably the

best result we could have.”

Perhaps Emery has to take some blame for

Villarreal’s failure to put the tie beyond

Arsenal’s reach: at half-time he replaced a

striker with a defensive midfielder, stripping

his team of their momentum.

surely cannot play so poorly, for so

long, in the second leg. Then again, who knows

what this erratic team will produce next? “It is

up to us,” said Saka. “It is always up to us. We

gave ourselves a chance at the Emirates.”

If anything, Arsenal actually improved after

Ceballos had been sent off. When a team

reaches such depths on occasions as significant

as this, the only way is up. Sometimes that can

be a liberating feeling, and it was once again

the enthusiasm of youth that helped them to

recover, with Saka leading the way.

A word too for Pepe, much-maligned since he

joined the club for £72 million during Emery’s

tenure. Emery has since said that he wanted

Wilfried Zaha instead, so this made for a

pointed riposte from Arsenal’s winger. As well

as the goal, Pepe was arguably Arsenal’s most

dangerous forward throughout.

Arsenal will no doubt pose more of an

attacking threat in the second leg, when they

should have one of Alexandre Lacazette or

Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, or both, fit to

start. Aubameyang is still recovering from

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malaria but he came off the bench at the

Estadio de la Ceramica and almost struck a late

equaliser in the final minutes.

“Two different halves,” was Arteta’s

assessment. “In the second half we started to

be us, in the first half there were so many

moments when we weren’t. We were not

precise with the ball and did not have enough

control. In the second half it was completely


Crucially, Arsenal might also have Kieran

Tierney available next week. Granit Xhaka once

again filled in at left-back, and he was targeted

from the off. Emery knows well that Xhaka

does not like to be dribbled at, because he saw

it so often himself during his time in north

London. It was therefore no surprise to see

Samuel Chukwueze, Villarreal’s tricky winger,

charging down Arsenal’s left flank after five


Neither Xhaka nor Ceballos were able to make

a proper challenge, with the ball ultimately

falling to Trigueros. His finish was firm and

accurate, scorching past the diving Bernd Leno.

The second came after nearly half an hour had

been played, with the Arsenal defence

completely motionless from a Villarreal corner.

A simple inswinging corner was attacked by

Gerard Moreno, and then tapped in by Albiol at

the back post.

Despair was setting in, and it got so much

worse for Arsenal when Ceballos committed his

second foolish challenge and was sent off.

The sense of anger towards the officials was

then felt by Villarreal. Saka dribbled into the

penalty box, running at the yellow shirts, and

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went down under a challenge from Trigueros.

“How can that be a penalty?’” said Emery. “Var

has to intervene.”

Pepe converted and the dynamic changed.

Before then, Leno had produced a sensational

stop to deny Moreno. Had the Villarreal striker

scored, there would have been no way back for

Arsenal. Instead, Capoue’s red card made it 10

against 10, and Aubameyang almost struck at

the end.

The Arsenal captain could not finish his one

clear chance, but there should be more of

those next week. “We are alive,” said Arteta.

Game on.


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