Arsenal have it all to do if they are to reach a second Europa League final in three seasons after Villarreal ran out 2-1 winners at El Madrigal this evening.
Both semi-finalists came into this game seeking to bounce back following respective league defeats last time out but it was The Yellow Submarine who dug the deepest before their visitors grabbed a precious away goal. It nevertheless leaves Unai Emery going into next Thursday’s return leg at the stadium he once called home with a slender advantage.
Manu Trigueros put the La Liga side in front with the first-leg just five minutes old before veteran centre-back Raúl Albiol doubled their lead on the half-hour mark. There was an urgency after the interval though Arsenal midfielder Dani Ceballos already on a booking showed too much eagerness and was dismissed early into the second half.
Either goal from a Gunners perspective could have been prevented and though Mikel Arteta felt the same way it’s a reminder of their defensive fragility which could very well rear its ugly head at the Emirates Stadium where they need to win by two clear goals. Speaking of the much-maligned Arsenal boss he produced an eyebrow-raising starting lineup which featured no out-and-out striker instead the impressive young playmaker Emile Smith Rowe starting in a ‘false nine’ role and Martin Ødegaard operating just behind him.
Nicolas Pépé, who has often saved his best football this season for the Europa League, would occasionally swap positions with Smith Rowe but it seemed whenever the Ivorian winger stayed out wide on the left the Premier League outfit looked their most threatening. Bukayo Saka, on the opposite flank, was equally courageous going forward and that desire was rewarded by winning a late spot-kick which Pépé subsequently converted.
“He saved us,” former Gunners interim boss Freddie Ljungberg said of Saka, whom he closely worked alongside, before praising the way he won Arsenal’s opportunity to get back in the tie. “I’m a big fan of Bukayo and I’ve been in that situation myself a little bit a few times and I think there’s a replay on it from behind where, in my opinion at least, it looks like Bukayo lets his right foot dingle out a little bit so he makes sure he hits it on the leg,” he told BT Sport. “And it’s clever and he gets a pen, especially in Europe, here we see even better here he lets it go and he hits the defender. But in Europe you sometimes get them and you need to be clever.”
As for Pépé no one has now been directly involved in more Europa League goals (six goals and four assists) than Arsenal’s ‘number 19’. Before his strike from 12 years the Gunners seldom troubled Gerónimo Rulli and when Villarreal themselves were reduced to 10 men — former Tottenham midfielder Étienne Capoue clumsily fouling Saka — he was regularly called into action most notably in the 90th minute when denying Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang from close range.
Even before taking an early shower Ceballos, on-loan from Real Madrid, was having an off day. He constantly gave possession away (11 times). A passing accuracy of 77.8% for a holding midfielder at this level is relatively poor. Since returning from a calf injury earlier this year Ceballos has struggled to hold down a regular starting berth. In the ten Premier League games preceding this evening, the Spainard would feature seven times, albeit completing the full 90 minutes on three occasions. It’s been different in Europe with Ceballos a near ever-present though before tonight he started and finished two Europa League games from 11 appearances.
His absence in the remainder of tonight’s game wasn’t really felt as the North Londoners rallied and former Arsenal defender Martin Keown, working on BT Sport as a pundit, made a point they looked no different. A damning indictment if ever there was one. Keown was also scathing of Ceballos’ overall performance suggesting he looked “out of his depth” consequently leaving a massive hole in their midfield.
As touched upon this only increased the workload on Arsenal’s already stretched defence which included an out of position Granit Xhaka who’s currently filling in for Kieran Tierney who should be returning to action soon. Arteta’s failure to recognise the situation regarding his compatriot and taking him off for his own good came back to bite him, fortunately the damage wasn’t too severe. Chances are Mohamed Elneny will start in Ceballos’ absence next week and one wonders if Arteta does manage to book a date in Gdańsk — against league rivals Manchester United unless Roma manage to mastermind the competition’s greatest turnaround — would the Spainard be entrusted after tonight’s lethargic showing.