Villarreal ahead but Pepe penalty gives Arsenal hope

Semi-final 1st leg

Villarreal 2-1 Arsenal 

Nicolas Pepe’s penalty provided a Europa League lifeline for 10-man Arsenal as they were beaten 2-1 by Unai Emery’s Villarreal in a dramatic semi-final first leg in Spain.

Arsenal endured a dismal first half at Estadio de la Ceramica as poor defending allowed Manuel Trigueros to smash home from inside the box (5), before an unmarked Raul Albiol doubled Villarreal’s lead from close range following a corner (29).

Arsenal were second best to their former manager’s side and their hopes of reaching the final appeared in even greater doubt when Dani Ceballos was shown a second yellow card for planting his studs on Villarreal’s Dani Parejo early in the second half.

But the Gunners were handed a scarcely-deserved route back into the tie when Bukayo Saka was tripped by Trigueros to win a penalty, with Pepe dispatching the spot-kick down the middle (73).

Villarreal then went down to 10 men themselves for the final 10 minutes as former Watford midfielder Etienne Capoue went in late on Saka to earn his second yellow card.

Arsenal had been forced to start the game without a recognised striker due to injuries, but they almost salvaged an unlikely draw when substitute Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, who was only fit enough for the bench following his bout of malaria, was denied by Villarreal goalkeeper Geronimo Rulli in stoppage time.

A 2-1 loss, however, will feel like a positive result for Mikel Arteta’s side on a night that at times threatened to wreck their Europa League hopes altogether.

Arteta had expressed optimism about Arsenal’s injured players returning in his pre-match press conference but Martin Odegaard was the only one who started, with Alexandre Lacazette and Kieran Tierney unable to even join Aubameyang on the bench.

Manu Trigueros celebrates with teammates Gerard Moreno and Alfonso Pedraza after opening the scoring.

Arsenal’s lack of firepower would prove problematic but it was the absence of Tierney that hurt them for Villarreal’s opener as makeshift left-back Granit Xhaka, together with Ceballos, backed off Samuel Chukwueze, allowing Trigueros to fire home from his deflected pass.

Emery, sacked by Arsenal in November 2019 after just 17 months in charge at the Emirates Stadium, pumped his fists in celebration in his technical area and the early setback rocked the visitors.

Arsenal’s nervousness was apparent in stray passes and panicked touches as they attempted to play out from the back and there was a glaring lack of cutting edge at the other end, leaving Emile Smith Rowe with little to work with in the false nine position.

Arsenal didn’t muster a shot until the 26th minute, when Saka curled wastefully over the bar, and their only other efforts of the first half involved Thomas Partey blasting a long-range effort into the stands and Rob Holding heading tamely wide from a free-kick.

Villarreal, meanwhile, continued to look threatening, springing forward every time they robbed Arsenal of possession and targeting the Gunners’ left side, where Chukwueze and right-back Juan Foyth found themselves with plenty of space to work in.

It was from a set piece, though, that they struck their second as Arsenal left two men unmarked in their own six-yard box from a corner, Albiol tucking home Gerard Moreno’s flick at the far post.

Arsenal were reeling but out of nowhere they were then awarded a penalty when Pepe was tripped and referee Artur Dias pointed to the spot, only for the decision to be overturned as a VAR review showed the Ivorian had handled the ball in the build-up.

Pepe would have to wait for his chance from the spot.

Nicolas Pepe pulls a goal back from the penalty spot.

Ceballos picked up his first booking of the night shortly before half-time when he tripped Foyth following another Villarreal breakaway and Arteta was then punished for opting not to withdraw him earlier.

Ceballos, whose errors almost cost Arsenal in the round of 32 against Benfica, had been fortunate to avoid a second yellow card for a careless foul moments after the break but there was no reprieve for him when he left a foot in on Parejo soon afterwards.

It seemed Arsenal’s hopes of reaching the Europa League final, and potentially salvaging something from their dismal domestic season, were slipping away from them as Villarreal tried to press home their man advantage.

Bernd Leno made a smart save from Chukwueze to keep them in the tie and then made an even better one from Moreno after he had been played in on goal by former Arsenal man Francis Coquelin.

Arsenal, buoyed by Leno’s heroics, then won the potentially crucial penalty as Saka’s trickery forced the error from Trigueros. Pepe held his nerve to slide home the away goal.

Another layer of drama was added to a chaotic night when Capoue saw red, injuring himself in the process, and a tie that had almost slipped away from Arsenal suddenly tilted in their favour.

Arsenal will need to show considerable improvement in next week’s second leg at the Emirates Stadium if they are to advance to the final, where they would likely face Manchester United, 6-2 winners against Roma, but at least now they have a chance.

The second leg of this semi-final will be played at the Emirates Stadium on Thursday of next week but before that, Arsenal face Newcastle in the Premier League on Sunday while Villarreal take on Getafe in La Liga on the same day.

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