After two painful defeats at the Mestalla Stadium during the peak years of the Wenger era, Arsenal finally achieved a result that meant progression as opposed to elimination against Valencia yesterday. On a balmy Mediterranean evening, an eventful match saw their Spanish opposition breach the Gunners’ defence on two occasions. It would have been enough had they nullified their visitors’ attack. Unfortunately for them, Pierre Emerick Aubameyang had an evening to justify his significant wages, scoring a hat-trick to add to a goal by his strike partner Alexandre Lacazette.
It wasn’t the first time that Unai Emery has brought pain to the club he used to manage at this very stage of the same competition. He was booed by the home fans just before the game began when he appeared on the big screens dotted around the Mestalla. Five years ago in a semi-final second leg at the same stadium, Emery’s Sevilla team were losing 3-2 on aggregate deep into second half injury time. 2-0 up from the first leg, it looked like his former club would progress to the final. Then, up popped Stephane Mbia to head a late consolation goal, one that sent Sevilla through on away goals.
Last night was nowhere near as close. Arsenal’s 4-2 victory meant a 7-3 aggregate win for the Premier League side. Emery picked the strongest team he had available, and barring injuries, it would seem likely that this eleven will be the same one that starts the final in Baku. Mesut Ozil was picked, but his familiarity with the Spanish League meant this wasn’t the same as a wet Wednesday evening up north. Continental referees protect players from getting roughed up more than domestic ones. Nacho Monreal was preferred to Shkodran Mustafi in a five man defence, although the German did get on as a sub to enjoy some playing time on a pitch he was very familiar with. Valencia started with a couple of former Gunners in the shape of Gabriel and Francis Coquelin.
It wasn’t the best of beginnings for Emery’s side, conceding after 11 minutes to lift the home crowd and get them believing. Arsenal were caught on the break with Monreal unable to intercept a ball across the box. Fortunately the visitors responded fairly quickly when a long punt upfield ended up with Aubameyang hitting a first time volley into the net. Phew. It provided a cushion, given Valencia would need to score two more to force extra time. There were opportunities at both ends during the rest of the first half, and moments of sloppiness on both sides. Valencia had more of the play.
1-1 at half-time was respectable enough, and it felt like Arsenal had weathered the storm to an extent by at least not conceding another goal. Things got even better shortly after the re-start when a Valencia mistake allowed their opponents to break and Lacazette to give them a critical second goal. No chance of extra time now, with the Spanish side needing to score four more goals to progress. Even with the defensive lapses we are all too familiar with from the Gunners, it looked a big ask.
Valencia had a go, scrambling an equalizer on the night before the hour. Former Atletico Madrid player Kevin Gameiro scored both of their goals, having started the first leg on the bench. Probably just as well with hindsight. However, Arsenal did a fair job of managing the game from this point on, and a second goal from Aubameyang after good work by Ainsley Maitland-Niles on the right saw streams of the home support head for the exits with over 20 minutes of the match still to play. Emery even felt confident enough to bring on Mustafi for the struggling Kolasinac and shift Monreal over to left wing back.
Aubameyang completed his hat-trick as the 90th minute neared, with a corker of a shot from a tight angle, and that was that. There was a scuffle at full time between Lacazette and Gabriel, which saw both players booked, although such was the degree of the melee involving all substitutes and coaching staff, one feared a red card that might see an Arsenal player suspended for the final.
So it was job done, but the reality is that the quality of Arsenal’s two forwards shone through. It was a competent, if not convincing display defensively. No surprise there. As the travelling fans waited to be released from the stadium, they followed developments at Stamford Bridge, where the game had gone into extra time. Half an hour later, the final visiting fans had been able to exit the Mestalla and local bars were showing the shoot-out after the tie had ended 2-2. As we know, Mauritzio Sarri’s side got through to set up an all-English final in Azerbaijan. An expensive trip and a long depressing journey home for one set of fans.
UEFA, in their wisdom, do not actually have to make a decision on a final venue until the quarter final draw has been made, and can then look logistically at a city that would be most feasible, given the eight potential teams that could reach it. Then you avoid the likes of two English sides meeting in Moscow or two Italian teams facing one another in Manchester. And of course in the Champions League final this season, two sets of English fans will travel to Spain. At least it’s nearer than Moscow or Baku. The allocation is around 6,000 tickets for each of the competing clubs in the Europa final, although I’ve been told that around 27,000 have been sold to locals. You can guess where those tickets are going to end up, assuming of course that more than 6,000 supporters from each side have a grand to shell out on just getting to the host city.
Still, the main thing is that Arsenal made it through. I am confident most Gooners would have preferred to be facing Frankfurt, but in recent seasons, they have played some good matches against Chelsea. This season, they were unfortunate to lose at the Bridge and played well in defeating them 2-0 at the Emirates. So there is cause for optimism, but defensively, they will have to be more on point than they were in the semi-final. Unless of course their forward line are able to bail them out one more time.
Food for thought. Petr Cech will play the final match of his career against the club where he made his reputation and won everything there is to win. Hopeless as he is at penalties, he managed to psyche out his former colleagues in the 2017 Community Shield. Another Arsenal European final decided by spot kicks? They are due to win one of those…
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