Result: Villarreal 2-1 Arsenal
Competition: Europa League
Date: 29 April 2021
Venue: Estadio de la Cerámica
Arsenal: Leno, Chambers, Holding, Mari, Xhaka, Partey, Ceballos, Saka, Smith Rowe, Odegaard, Pepe
Subs: Ryan, Okonkwo, Bellerin, Gabriel, Cedric, Luiz, Elneny, Willian, Nelson, Nketiah, Martinelli, Aubameyang
Nicolas Pepe’s penalty ensures Arsenal are still in with a chance of making the Europa League final after we escaped Villarreal with a 2-1 defeat.
The home side were well in charge by the half-hour mark when Raul Albiol added to Manu Tigueros’ early opener but Unai Emery’s side failed to take advantage of Dani Ceballos’ second half red card before being reduced to ten men themselves when Etienne Capoue was booked twice in quick succession. Sandwiched between the sendings off, Pepe kept his cool from 12-yards after Saka had won a spot-kick.
It’s all to play for at the Emirates next week. The prize looks likely to be a showdown with Manchester United who beat Roma 6-2 at Old Trafford.
Mikel Arteta’s declaration that Kieran Tierney, Alex Lacazette, David Luiz and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang were all fit proved to be mind games. While the latter pair made the bench none were included in the starting lineup. When the lineup was announced our lack of a proper striker was the main talking point. Nicolas Pepe and Bukayo Saka were the most advanced players in attack but with Martin Odegaard and Emile Smith Rowe buzzing around them, it was a fluid setup. At the back, Granit Xhaka started at left-back, Calum Chambers at right-back and Pablo Mari partnered Rob Holding. Dani Ceballos and Thomas Partey anchored the midfield.
The game still seemed to be settling into its rhythm when Villarreal caught us out with an early punch in the gut. With a couple of quick passes, they sprung our midfield allowing right-back Juan Foyth to burst forward and find Samu Chukwueze. The winger, who once upon a time nearly signed for us, came off the right flank to nip inside a back-peddling Xhaka and when the ball fell kindly to Manu Tigueros he drilled a low shot first time under Leno. The goal was met by a roar of approval from Unai Emery who was full of his usual greasy energy. Not a good start. (1-0)
Villarreal are a tight, organised unit but they also seemed happy to cede control of the ball and bit-by-bit we started to pen them in. Twice we found Pepe in dangerous positions against Foyth, twice he failed to deliver meaningful end product. But it was promising.
Dani Ceballos was doing alright in midfield. Until he wasn’t. For a while, he was composed on the ball in tight spaces and kept us moving, but when he lost the ball on 28 minutes, we were immediately on the back foot. Villarreal won a corner and when the ball was whipped in, Moreno flicked a header to the back post where veteran centre-back Raul Albiol, completely unmarked, volleyed into the top corner from close range. It was disastrous defending. (2-0)
We thought we had a route back into the game within a couple of minutes when Pepe was tripped in the box by Foyth. The penalty was given but VAR overruled for a handball in the buildup. There could be no complaints, accidental or not, he clearly controlled the ball with his arm.
Foyth was Villarreal’s worst and best player simultaneously. He looked very vulnerable at the back but on the ball, he was a key outlet. We repeatedly let him charge up the pitch and it kept taking us by surprise. In the closing stages of the half, Ceballos, who has the pace of a snail, had little choice but to make a cynical foul on the Argentinean as he threatened to shoot from outside the box. He went in the book. Thankfully, Leno made light work of claiming Paco Alcacer’s free-kick.
With a two-goal lead to protect, Emery sent on ex-Gunner Francis Coquelin to sure up his midfield. It was a conservative moe. Arteta probably should have made a change of his own but he left Ceballos on and promptly watched his compatriot make another clumsy challenge. The midfielder was walking a tightrope with the referee.
We certainly played with a bit more zip following the half time team talk – Pepe had a half chance blocked – but it was glaringly obvious that we’d benefit from an actual striker in the box. Our attackers were hardly aerial monsters.
On 58 minutes, Ceballos got the red card that had been coming. To be fair, he was pretty unlucky as he tried to steal the ball deep in the Villarreal half but the referee had no qualms reaching for his pocket. The Arsenal players complained in numbers, Partey earned a booking of his own for dissent, but it made no difference. Arteta was furious, probably with himself as much as Ceballos. This was very much on the manager.
With a man advantage, Villarreal tried to kill the game on the counter-attack. Leno denied Chukwueze and twice stopped Moreno. The first of those was a fantastic fingertip save to tip over the bar; it turned out to be tie-changing.
In search of a goal, Arteta sent Martinelli on for Odegaard but clear cut chances continued to evade us. That was until Saka made a dart into the box, hung out a leg, made contact with Trigueros and won a penalty. Was it soft? Absolutely. Did we care? Not one jot. Nicolas Pepe was made to wait by the referee but he found the net by going straight down the middle. Better. (2-1)
Things went from bad to worse for the home side. Etienne Capoue, already booked, charged in on Saka, injured himself and earned a deserved second yellow. He suffered the ignominy of being presented with the red while on a stretcher. You could tell both sides had Arsenal managers in charge.
Could we grab an unlikely equaliser? Aubameyang was sent on for the final five minutes but it was the home side who looked more likely to score. If anything, having wrestled our way back into contention we seemed happy to settle with a one-goal losing margin and our away goal.
Deep into stoppage time, Auba got the chance he’d been sent on to convert. Played in by a fine Partey ball, he spun and shot but keeper Geronimo Rulli made the save.
After a terrible first hour, it was a gutsy performance from the guys who stayed on the pitch. They deserve credit for keeping themselves in the tie when it looked all but lost. That said, we can’t afford to make such a sluggish start next week.
“We’re still alive,” said Arteta afterwards. More by luck than judgment.