Result: Arsenal – Slavia Prague
Competition: Europa League
Date: 8 April 2021
Venue: Emirates Stadium
Arsenal: Leno, Bellerin, Holding, Gabriel, Cedric, Xhaka, Partey, Willian, Smith Rowe, Saka, Lacazette
Subs: Ryan, Hein, Ceballos, Aubameyang, Pepe, Mari, Nelson, Elneny, Nketiah, Martinelli, Azeez, Lopez
Tomas Holes’ stoppage time header snatched a 1-1 draw for Slavia Prague on a night when Arsenal were made to pay for a host of missed chances.
The Gunners thought they’d secured a late win when Nicolas Pepe, played in by fellow substitute Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, dinked over keeper Ondrej Kolar on 85 minutes.
However, there was a late sting in the tail of this quarter-final first leg when the visitors, outplayed for much of the game, pounced at the back post after Mikel Arteta’s side failed to deal with a corner.
Already without Kieran Tierney and David Luiz – both sidelined by knee injuries – Mikel Arteta also had to make do without Martin Odegaard who succumbed to an ankle injury initially picked up in the Interlull. On the plus side Emile Smith Rowe, Bukayo Saka and Granit returned after sitting out the Liverpool game. They formed the crux of the midfield with Thomas Partey, and Willian also in the mix. The boss also made the big decision to drop captain Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang meaning Alex Lacazette started. At the back Cedric went to left-back, Bellerin started right-back with Holding and Gabriel partnered in the middle. On the bench, youngsters Miguel Azeez and Joel Lopez took up places alongside the lesser spotted Reiss Nelson and Eddie Nketiah.
Dominant in their domestic league, it was no surprise that Slavia looked organised from the off. They were happy to sit back, to slow things down and to suck the life out of any Arsenal hopes of a fast start. To be fair, we didn’t exactly push the issue. Unsure how to break down the lines of black and tentative in our passing, we looked the more nervous of the two sides.
As the half wore on, the Gunners worked out that Saka clearly had the beating of his man. Lacazette had found the England international with a pass behind the defence as early as the 5th minute and while he couldn’t escape his marker on that occasion, it was a tactic we rightly kept trying. Unfortunately, for all his energy, our number 7 lacked an end product.
Just before the half-hour mark, he was played in on goal by a slide-rule pass by Holding but with only the keeper to beat, he curled well wide of the far post. It was a bad miss and he was clearly disgusted with himself. On a couple of other occasions, he either failed to pick out an Arsenal body in the box or held onto the ball so long that he was closed down. It was a frustrating half for the youngster.
By and large, we were the better side. Slavia managed a couple of efforts on goal – one right down Leno’s throat and another over the German’s bar – but Thomas Partey’s telescopic legs and the hustle and bustle of those around him ensured we won a lot of turnover ball.
We also had joy pouncing on the poor distribution of keeper Ondrej Kolar. Time and time again he tried to chip balls to the flanks only to fluff his lines. Holding took advantage on one occasion to play a one-two with Saka before firing in a dangerous cross. Our centre-back also had a fine chance to score, forcing Kolar to tip over his header from a Cedric cross after a Lacazette free-kick had been blocked.
Arteta must have rubber-stamped the “give the ball to Saka” routine during the break because the winger was immediately sent through on goal by Bellerin. This time Slavia defender Zima resorted to tugging him down. It looked close to being a penalty but the referee correctly awarded a free-kick on the right diagonal of the box. Willian stood over the set-piece and curled a beauty of an effort against the outside of the post.
Saka was released again two minutes later but his decision to loop a cross to the back post when he should have committed his man meant the momentum broke down again.
At the other end, Leno had to deny Boril with his legs after Slavia let off some steam on the break. It was a decent stop by the German given the effort took a nick off Bellerin.
Just past the hour, we squandered yet another chance. Lacazette did brilliantly to win the ball on the halfway line and he somehow, despite a distinct lack of pace, managed to get to the area unchallenged before deciding where to put the ball. He opened his body and tried to find the top corner and ended up hitting the bar. It was a very bad miss.
The Frenchman had another chance four minutes later. At the back post, he lunged to reach a Saka cross but couldn’t control the finish and hit over from only a couple of yards out.
Rather than turn to Aubameyang for cutting edge, Arteta handed Gabriel Martinelli 18 minutes to shine. The Brazilian replaced compatriot Willian on the left wing.
Partey and Sevcik traded further misses – both golden opportunities – before Arteta sent on Pepe, Aubameyang and Elneny for Lacazette, Saka and Partey. They nearly made an instant impact. Pepe freed Smith Rowe whose cross found Auba but he couldn’t direct his side foot effort on target.
Next up, Martinelli fired over. It was all Arsenal. We just needed someone to find a finish. With four minutes remaining, it finally came. Aubameyang chased after a ball through the middle, managed to win it off his marker and played in Pepe who showed really good pace before dinking the keeper with a perfect finish that crept inside the far post. (1-0)
Having failed to keep a clean sheet in living memory, the big challenge was not panicking. Of course, we panicked. After Leno had made a fine save to deny Provod, we couldn’t deal with the resulting corner where Tomas Holes headed home from close range to grab a vital away goal in stoppage time. (1-1)
As the final whistle went, Arteta had the look of a man who could kill. His side doesn’t know how to make life easy for themselves. We have it all to do when we head to Prague next week.