Villarreal v Arsenal
Thursday 29th April 2021, Kick off 8:00pm (BT Sport)
Europa League Semi-Final, First Leg
Estadio de la Cerámica
Unai Emery, we meet again. The Spaniard was sacked less than eighteen months ago by the Arsenal board, but is set to face his former side in the competition he practically owns over two legs, starting in this Thursday’s semi-final in eastern Spain.
When it comes to the Europa League, Emery is the only manager who has won the competition three times in a row- in 2014, 15 and 16 as manager of Sevilla.
A shoot-out win against Benfica and a close game against Dnipro may seem underwhelming, but the 2016 final came against a buoyant Liverpool side led by Jurgen Klopp, with the likes of Daniel Sturridge and Phillipe Coutinho leading the line for the Reds.
When the Spaniard arrived at Arsenal, there was almost an air of expectation that Champions League football would be delivered to the Emirates through the smaller competition, but a 4-1 defeat in Baku to Chelsea meant that Emery left Arsenal trophyless in late 2019.
Mikel Arteta was only just behind Emery on the managerial shortlist after Arsene Wenger was sacked, and Spaniard replaced Spaniard, this time winning silverware in summer 2020 in the form of the FA Cup. Much has been said about Arteta learning from Pep Guardiola at Manchester City, but European success has eluded the Catalan since he joined the club. Arteta is on his own here, an antithesis of Emery’s Europa League experience and success.
It’s been a strange season in LaLiga for the Yellow Submarine, who have actually drawn more games than they have won.
Points have been frequently dropped against smaller sides, and Villarreal sit 7th in LaLiga, but just a point off Real Sociedad in 5th. Much like the Gunners, Europa League is the key aim, but they are just 3 games away from a potential Champions League return.
For Arsenal, a defeat at this stage would be devastating, in a climax of protests, ownership questions and poor results on the pitch. Defeat against Everton seemed to be a combination of everything that’s gone wrong for us this season, with Bernd Leno’s own goal condemning Arsenal to a 13th defeat of the season, with seven coming at home.
The second leg thumping of Slavia Prague proved what Arteta’s side can do, with free-flowing attacking football dominating the Czech side in a brilliant first half performance.
Much like a cricket team that performs better chasing down a specific target, it seems that Arsenal play their worst football in the first leg, before going out with real motivation in the second. It’s a strange analysis, but it’s been the case throughout this Europa League campaign.
A new contract for 19 year old Folarin Balogun has been welcomed by Gooners, who will hope to be included in the larger Europa League squad on Thursday night. Alex Lacazette was injured for the game against Everton, and his strike partner Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang is continuing his recovery from Malaria. Martin Odegaard came off the bench against Everton and could play a key role. This game is crucial for Eddie Nketiah, who simply has to step up in the semi-final.
Villarreal’s squad features a host of well-known names. Juan Foyth and Etienne Capoue both wore the white of Tottenham Hotspur in recent years, and Alberto Moreno was signed from Liverpool in July 2019.
Former Arsenal midfielder Francis Coquelin will likely start on the bench, with Dani Parejo starting alongside Capoue in midfield. The key for Villareal is up top, with former Borussia Dortmund striker Paco Alcacer partnering with Gerard Moreno. Both scored in the win over Dinamo Zagreb in the quarter final, and 29 year old Moreno has 20 league goals this season, in the form of his life.
Europa League mastermind Unai Emery meets managerial novice Mikel Arteta in a fascinating semi-final clash.
With only 7th placed Roma in the way of Manchester United, both English sides need to avoid embarrassment to set up a rivalry final, but Gerard Moreno will do all he can to make sure this is not the case.