Football Features

“These glorious young guns” – Saka and Smith-Rowe shine as Arsenal annihilate Slavia to book Europa League semi-final slot

By Muhammad Butt

Published: 22:25, 15 April 2021

In a devastating night of football, Arsenal absolutely hammered Slavia Prague 0-4 to make the Europa League semi-finals.

This was the Gunners second appearance in the final four in the last three years. Who were the winners and losers?

Winner: Alexandre Lacazette

With Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang stricken with Malaria, someone had to step up and lead the young Arsenal players and Alex Lacazette has clearly decided that he will be the man to do that. Wearing the captain’s armband the Frenchman led from the front with a brilliant brace.

He struck twice against Sheffield United at the weekend, and then he ripped Slavia apart too. He stepped up to nervelessly conver the penalty that made it 0-2 on the night and gave Arsenal the away goal advantage and then he quite spectacularly added a fourth in the second-half with a devastating left-footed finish. His 17th goal of the season, making him Arsenal’s top scorer.

Lacazette may be stand-in skipper, but he’s proving himself an outstanding leader.

Winner: Nicolas Pépé

Arsenal did not finish well in the first-leg, but the man who gave them the lead was Nicolas Pépé with a lovely deft flick. And then again tonight after they had a goal disallowed, who stepped up again to give the Gunners the lead so quickly after? Nicolas Pépé.

The Ivorian picked the ball up from Emile Smith Rowe’s superb pass and then showed outrageous strength to hold off his defender, skip around the goalkeeper’s dive, take aim and blast the ball into the back of the net. It was a sublime strike and showed how Pépé is coming into his own as a left-winger playing on his orthodox side. Not what Arsenal expected when they signed him, but pretty great all the same.

Winner: The Young Guns

Given Kieran Tierney’s injury troubles the two men who you could say were Arsenal’s top dogs were Emile Smith Rowe and Bukayo Saka. The teenagers from the youth system have been outperforming big names earning several times what they do. And tonight again they were the beating heart of this victory.

Smith Rowe scored the opening goal of the night after the goalkeeper tipped Bukayo Saka’s thunderbolt shot onto the post. However that was ruled out for offside. Smith Rowe was not to be stopped however, and danced his way through a pack of Slavia defenders and then played a delicious pass to Pépé which his team-mate finished to give Arsenal the lead.

A few minutes later Bukayo Saka burst into the box and was fouled to give Arsenal a penalty which Lacazette confirmed. Then finally Saka got what he’d been looking for when he fired a delicious shot into the near-post to make it 0-3. Three goals in six minutes and the tie was as good as over, all thanks to these glorious young guns.

Loser: Unai Emery

Just when Unai Emery thought he had escaped the scorn of Arsenal twitter and the English media, he goes ahead an draws them in the Europa League semi-finals. The Spaniard has been doing very well back in his homeland, and of course won this very tournament three times in a row with Sevilla and guided Arsenal all the way to the 2019 final (only to lose to Chelsea).

But now he has to deal with the spectre of Arsenal. And of course on the one hand this provides him with a chance for revenge, a chance to dump Arsenal out. And that is true. But the Gunners have an incredible amount of quality in their squad and need only the right amount of focus and intensity to unleash it onto a Villarreal squad that have repeatedly come up short against the stronger opponents this season.

Winner: Mikel Arteta

Too often Mikel Arteta’s Arsenal have looked ponderous and slow. They’ve dallied on the ball, they’ve built-up play very slowly and failed to punish weak defending when it’s been presented to them. Moreover they’ve been soft at the back, allowing opponents to hurt them.

Well tonight Mikel Arteta’s Arsenal showed a different side to themselves. They’ve played super defensive on the break, they’ve played slow patient possession football, and tonight they just went hell for leather in the first-half absolutely flying at Slavia every chance they got, unbalancing them with skill and precision to take a commanding 3-0 lead inside the opening half an hour.

Then, in the second-half, knowing they have big games to come, they returned to patient possession and saw the game out rather professionally. It was the kind of display Arteta would have dreamed for, and sometimes dreams do come true.

Loser: Racism

When Ondrej Kudela racially abused Glen Kamara, he did so with absolutely no shame whatsoever. It was a disgusting act of cowardice and malice. It was pathetic and the way in which a vocal minority of Slavia’s fanbase rallied around their man was embarrassing to say the least.

UEFA should have taken severe action, kicking Slavia out of the Europa League to make a statement that racism is not accepted. Instead they dished out the minimum sentence possible (a 10 match ban for Kudela) and just let things proceed as usual otherwise.

So it fell to Arsenal to punish Slavia, and while they failed to do that at the Emirates they have devastated them here in Prague. A comprehensive victory that ended Slavia’s incredible 30 game undefeated home run (they last lost here in 2019) in devastating fashion.

To be perfectly clear: this win for the Gunners hasn’t “fixed” anything regarding racism, which is still rife in both society and thus football. FIFA and UEFA still need to up their game when it comes to combating prejudice and bigotry in all forms and providing punishments that are sufficiently harsh that they both punish the crime and act as a deterrent. That much is definitive.

However, watching Arsenal turf Slavia Prague out of Europe has been a balm, a soothing bit of retributive justice. Someone had to kick racism out of football and tonight Arsenal have played their part. Now it’s up to you to do better, UEFA. We’re all waiting.