Nicolas Pepe’s second-half penalty gave Arsenal renewed hope of reaching the Europa League final despite a semi-final first-leg loss at Villarreal as both sides finished with 10 men.
With the Gunners trailing 2-0 and a man down following Dani Ceballos’ sending off, Pepe stepped up and fired home a precious away goal from the spot after Bukayo Saka had been tripped in the box.
It means Mikel Arteta’s side go into next Thursday’s second leg with genuine hope of reaching a second Europa League final in three seasons and with the potential of qualifying for next season’s Champions League.
They appeared to be sinking without trace when Manu Trigueros fired in an early low, angled drive for the home side before Raul Albiol slammed home at the back post following Gerard Moreno’s flick-on from a corner.
Ceballos’ red card with 30 minutes left, courtesy of a second booking for standing on the boot of Daniel Parejo, looked to have sealed their fate.
But Bernd Leno produced two good saves to keep the home side at bay before Pepe – playing as a false nine – had his say.
Villarreal may still have fancied their chances of scoring again, but this was hampered when they too were reduced to 10 men, as Etienne Capoue shown a second yellow for a late tackle on Saka.
The ‘Yellow Submarine’, managed by ex-Gunners Unai Emery, will go into the second leg on top, but facing the prospect that just one unanswered concession will send them out.
Arsenal down but not out
Emery is all too familiar with the regular inquests that greet Arsenal’s failures on the pitch from his 18 months in charge of the club as successor to Arsene Wenger.
It was the heavy defeat to Chelsea in the final of this competition in 2019 that was the beginning of the end for his largely disappointing stint as boss.
It felt like another inquest was incoming, this time for Arteta, with the Gunners trailing 2-0 after a half in which they were out-thought and out-classed.
Defeat in this tie would likely prompt a new level of soul-searching at the club, who currently sit 10th in the Premier League and need to triumph in this competition to extend their record of appearing in continental competition to 26 successive seasons.
The Gunners’ current boss has built a more robust, patient side than his predecessor, but they badly let themselves down with two defensive lapses to hand the initiative to their opponent.
Samuel Chukwueze was allowed to carry the ball too far into the box to tee up the first goal for Trigueros after just five minutes. Even more criminal was the lack of marking that allowed Moreno to flick the ball on for Albiol to score the second.
Chasing that crucial away goal, they could ill-afford Ceballos’ disciplinary lapse, and it almost proved terminal to their hopes with Moreno twice seeing efforts saved by Leno in the aftermath.
To the credit of Arteta and his players, though, they continued to push for a foothold and found it when Saka went down in the box. The amount of contact from Trigueros’ boot is up for debate, although VAR backed up the on-field official.
Pepe has not always stood out as the man for the big occasion during his time at Arsenal, but with a goal in each of his last three Europa League games and six in total in this season’s competition, he is leading from the front in this campaign.
His strike on Thursday could well be the most important of the lot – a goal in times of adversity that could well allow Arsenal to salvage something from the season.
Arsenal suffer rare first-leg loss
- This was just the second time in their 10 European semi-finals that Arsenal have lost the first leg, also doing so in the 2008-09 Champions League against Manchester United (from which they were eliminated).
- Villarreal have progressed from 15 of their 16 two-legged ties in major European competition when winning the first leg – the only exception was in the 2015-16 UEFA Europa League semi-final, when they went out to Liverpool despite winning the first leg.
- Arsenal have been shown 10 red cards in all competitions under Mikel Arteta, twice as many as any other Premier League side in the period since he took over in December 2019.
- This was the first time a former Arsenal manager (Unai Emery) had beaten the Gunners since George Graham’s Tottenham side won 2-1 at White Hart Lane in a Premier League encounter in November 1999.
- Manu Trigueros’ opener for Villarreal at 4m 39s was the earliest European goal Arsenal have conceded since September 2016, when Edinson Cavani scored after 42 seconds for Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League.
- Arsenal’s Nicolas Pepe has been involved in more goals in the UEFA Europa League this season than any other player (10 – 6 goals, 4 assists).
- Gerard Moreno has scored or assisted a goal in all seven of his UEFA Europa League starts for Villarreal this season, with the Spaniard setting up the second goal this evening.
- Arsenal’s Dani Ceballos picked up his first red card in all competitions for a team playing in the top five European leagues (201st game).
- 8FoythSubstituted forPÃ©rez MartÃnezat 70′minutes
- 4TorresBooked at 37mins
- 24PedrazaSubstituted forMorenoat 80′minutes
- 25CapoueBooked at 80mins
- 14Trigueros MuÃ±ozSubstituted forGÃ³mez Bardonadoat 81′minutes
- 17AlcÃ¡cerSubstituted forCoquelinat 45′minutes
- 2PÃ©rez MartÃnez
- 6Funes Mori
- 23GÃ³mez Bardonado
- 18ParteyBooked at 57mins
- 8CeballosBooked at 57mins
- 7SakaSubstituted forAubameyangat 85′minutesBooked at 90mins
- 11ÃdegaardSubstituted forMartinelliat 63′minutes
- 19PÃ©pÃ©Substituted forWillianat 90+5′minutes
- 32Smith RoweSubstituted forElnenyat 90+5′minutes
- 17CÃ©dric Soares
- 23David Luiz
- Artur Manuel Soares Dias
Match ends, Villarreal 2, Arsenal 1.
Second Half ends, Villarreal 2, Arsenal 1.
Attempt missed. Calum Chambers (Arsenal) header from the centre of the box is too high. Assisted by Willian with a cross following a corner.
Substitution, Arsenal. Willian replaces Nicolas PÃ©pÃ©.
Substitution, Arsenal. Mohamed Elneny replaces Emile Smith Rowe.
Corner, Arsenal. Conceded by GerÃ³nimo Rulli.
Attempt saved. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (Arsenal) right footed shot from the right side of the box is saved in the bottom right corner. Assisted by Thomas Partey.
Attempt missed. Gerard Moreno (Villarreal) header from the centre of the box misses to the left. Assisted by Francis Coquelin with a cross.
Offside, Villarreal. Daniel Parejo tries a through ball, but Gerard Moreno is caught offside.
Foul by Granit Xhaka (Arsenal).
Samuel Chukwueze (Villarreal) wins a free kick on the right wing.
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (Arsenal) is shown the yellow card for a bad foul.
Foul by Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (Arsenal).
RaÃºl Albiol (Villarreal) wins a free kick in the attacking half.
Offside, Arsenal. Granit Xhaka tries a through ball, but Calum Chambers is caught offside.
Calum Chambers (Arsenal) wins a free kick in the defensive half.
Foul by Alberto Moreno (Villarreal).
Substitution, Arsenal. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang replaces Bukayo Saka.
Offside, Arsenal. Granit Xhaka tries a through ball, but Nicolas PÃ©pÃ© is caught offside.
Foul by Calum Chambers (Arsenal).