Football Features

“It’s his house!” – Five things learned from the Europa League quarter-finals

By Muhammad Butt

Published: 22:23, 18 April 2019

It was a pulsating night of quarter-final action in the Europa League as the semi-finals were set.

Arsenal beat Napoli 0-1, Chelsea and Slavia Prague played out a seven goal thriller, Valencia dispatched Villarreal 2-0 and finally Frankfurt overturned their first leg defeat to win 2-0 and progress on away goals. What did we learn?

1. LacaBOSS

One thing you want when you go away from home in Europe is for your star strikers to deliver, because if you can score an away goal then the entire shape of your tie will be utterly transformed. The psychological effect is as strong as the mathematical one.

Unai Emery took a risk starting with both Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, because that vacated midfield and also meant that he had no genuine gamechanger on the bench. Lacazette made sure the risk paid off though, first with an absolutely excellent performance full of great movement, passing and interplay – and then with his showstopping free-kick.

Lacazette was fully 30 yards away from goal and placed dead centre when he stepped up inside a hostile Stadio San Paolo. No one would have begrudged him has he missed it, this was far from an easy chance. Instead the Frenchman stepped up and beamed an absolute beauty into the back of the net. Alex Meret in the Napoli goal didn’t even move.

2. VAR was missed

Last night in the Champions League we have been given object lessons in why VAR is not only the future and a source of tremendously new forms of drama, but ultimately an overwhelming force for good. The Europa League doesn’t have VAR, and in the end that made a massive difference to way at least one tie proceeded.

Benfica came into Frankfurt protecting a 4-2 lead, and whilst they were far from at their best in Germany, their opponents didn’t look like it was going to happen for them. But then Mijat Gacinovic’s shot bounced off the post and Filip Kostic tucked home the rebound, except Kostic was clearly offside when he did it.

Benfica were furious (rightly so) but that goal changed everything, and with their confidence boosted, Frankfurt eventually found that second goal to knock Benfica out. It was brutally unfair on the bold Benfica side full of amazing young talent.

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3. Valencia will be no pushovers

Arsenal will feel confident heading into the semi-finals, and that’s rightly so, but once there they will face a mean Valencia side who will give them as good as they can get. Los Che have had an underwhelming season compared to their comeback campaign last year, but they have risen up the table in 2019 and are now in their first Copa del Rey final in over a decade and back in a European semi-final for the first time since 2014 when they lost to Sevilla on away goals.

Tonight they came back to the Mestalla carrying a 1-3 away win and that could have caused a great deal of complacency amongst the squad but they buckled down and beat Villarreal. They scored early in both halves and then just ran the game out. With Portuguese sensation Goncalo Guedes finally fit and firing, Valencia look a genuine threat and it’ll be interesting to see how Emery handles them.

Arsenal fans will take heart from the fact that when Valencia lost to Sevilla in their last Euro semi, Unai Emery was the Sevilla manager. The Spanish coach has managed 11 games against Valencia; winning four, drawing two and losing five. He has a particularly bad record at the Mestalla where his only win was with Almeria back in 2008 – so Arsenal with their ropey away record will need to beware.

4. The weird and wonderful world of Sarrismo

There’s been a lot of nonsense written and said about Sarrismo and how Maurizio Sarri should adapt his tactics because the Premier League is extra special and oh so different that you just “can’t play that way here.” Nevermind that Chelsea have proven at times that not only can Sarrismo work at Chelsea but it was work exceptionally well.

Chelsea ripped Slavia Prague to bits at Stamford Bridge. They rattled in four goals and it could have been more. Their movement and attacking interplay was sublime, particularly where it involved Pedro and Olivier Giroud. Pedro and Giroud are almost perfectly-suited to the positional and selfless demands of Sarrismo, and it really showed. Their link-up for Pedro’s first goal ad Giroud’s record-setting 10th Europa League strike this season was delightful and a keen reminder of what Sarri can do with willing participants.

Of course this was also a huge example of just what Sarrismo can get wrong. Namely the defending. Jorginho has been criticised all season for his ropey defending, but even in his absence tonight, the Blues let an incredibly comfortable 4-1 lead get pulled back to 4-3. Sure, Petr Sevcik’s two goals were stunning strikes but the fact that he had the room to shoot from the edge of the box – twice – is a concern. And that Chelsea got all conservative and barely managed a single shot for the second half is just an example of why Sarrismo is a true rollercoaster.

5. Unai’s House

Arsenal are just the second side all season to win in the Stadio San Paolo. They made light work of a stadium which got the better of Liverpool and almost downed PSG too. They’re back in the Europa League semi-final in their second season in a row but this time they are carrying themselves with a entirely different energy.

The match in Naples started out in a bad way with Aaron Ramsey, the club’s talisman over the last few weeks, left the field with a hamstring injury. That would have destroyed previous Arsenal sides, but under Unai Emery there is a steeliness there. The Gunners simply grit their teeth and got on with it. They handled Napoli with consummate ease and propelled themselves to the semis.

Unai Emery has won the Europa League three years in a row with Sevilla, the only manager to ever do so. And now he’s brought that energy to Arsenal. Valencia won’t be easy to beat in the semis, but you no longer look at Arsenal and expect them to fold under pressure. The Europa League is Unai Emery’s house, so pump up the volume and grab yourself a drink from the fridge because the house party’s just getting started.