Nicolas Pepe’s second-half penalty gave ten-man Arsenal a lifeline in their Europa League semi-final after a testing 2-1 first-leg defeat to Unai Emery’s Villarreal in Spain.
Arsenal may have been tidy on the ball throughout the first-half, but defensively the visitors were all over the place, making on-loan Spurs defender Juan Foyth look like a prime Cafu as he repeatedly marauded forward from right-back.
And those defensive issues, caused partially by having Granit Xhaka in an unfamiliar position at full-back, were exposed when Villarreal opened the scoring after just five minutes through Manu Trigueros.
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The hosts kept on causing problems throughout the first 45, adding a second goal through the un-marked Raul Albion from a corner, and could easily have bagged more. But there were some glimmers of hope for Arsenal, with a penalty decision (overturned by VAR for a Pepe handball) showing that the home side were also vulnerable at the back.
The disappointing Ceballos didn’t make things straightforward for Arsenal after the break, picking up a second yellow on 57 minutes to send the visitors down to ten men. But VAR didn’t deny Arsenal a second penalty when Saka went down in the box on 71 minutes, with Pepe scoring an away goal from the spot to give the Gunners a lifeline in the tie.
A second yellow for Etienne Capoue meant that the game ended 10 vs 10, with the midfielder bizarrely shown his red card while being carried from the field on a stretcher after injuring himself in the process of making a foul.
But no further goals mean that Arsenal are still very much in this tie, despite a performance that at times threatened to leave Arteta humbled by his predecessor.
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Dani Ceballos’ lack of pace was exploited time and again during the first half, and it was a bit of a surprise to see him come back out after the interval, particularly given that he’d picked up a silly booking just moments before the break.
It felt like he was walking a bit of a tightrope right from the start of the second half, with Villarreal looking to run at him whenever the opportunity arose, and the second yellow duly arrived.
Why Arteta didn’t see it coming is the question, or if he did then why didn’t he act? The Arsenal manager is fortunate that his (and Ceballos’) mistake didn’t result in Arsenal slipping completely out of touch in the tie.
Man of the Match – Juan Foyth (Villarreal)
It may have been a case of a favourable match-up, but the on-loan Spurs man caused Arsenal constant problems with a brilliant attacking performance from right-back. A hamstring injury off the ball ended his night prematurely, with Villarreal’s attacking threat largely departing with him, but he was the player who made the difference in a first-half display from the hosts that won them the game.
Villarreal: Rulli 7, Foyth 8, Albiol 8, Pau 8, Pedraza 7, Parejo 7, Capoue 6, Trigueros 7, Chukwueze 7, Alcacer 7, G Moreno 7. Subs: Coquelin 6, Gaspar 6, A Moreno 6, Gomez 6
Arsenal: Leno 7, Chambers 6, Holding 6, Mari 6, Xhaka 5, Partey 6, Ceballos 4, Saka 7, Odegaard 6, Smith Rowe 6, Pepe 7. Subs: Martinelli 6, Aubameyang 6, Elneny 6, Willian 6
5’ GOAL! – It’s an early strike and Villarreal have the lead. Arsenal were all over the place defensively down their left and the ball broke for Trigueros to hit first time beyond Leno. 1-0!
29’ GOAL! – It’s another for Villarreal and Arsenal are in trouble here. The Gunners completely fail to deal with a corner and Albiol is left all alone at the back post to volley home a flick-on. 2-0!
33’ – Pepe goes down on the corner of the box under pressure from Foyth and the referee points to the spot. VAR is taking a look at this decision. Foyth had looked to touch the ball away from Pepe, but he caught the Arsenal man with his trailing leg. There could have been a handball in the build-up though.
35’ – Pepe did indeed handle the ball as he tried to bring it under control at the start of that incident, and the penalty decision is overturned. That's a pretty clear one in truth, no real arguments.
42’ – Almost another huge chance for Villarreal as Foyth bursts forward down the right, drifts in-field and then slides a pass through for Moreno. Leno charges out to make it difficult and does just enough to force the attacker to lose control.
57’ – Ceballos is off! The Spaniard is absolutely furious protesting the decision as Arsenal crowd around the referee, but he’s been shown a second yellow and Arsenal’s night goes from bad to worse. He lunged in and stood on Parejo there, it probably is a booking.
66’ – What a save by Leno. A no-look pass finds Moreno and his effort from close range is brilliantly tipped over the bar by the Arsenal stopper.
71’ – Penalty! Is this a lifeline for Arsenal? Saka is tripped in the box and the referee points to the spot.
73’ GOAL! – Pepe slots it straight down the middle and 10-man Arsenal are back in this tie. 2-1!
77’ – Capoue lunges in on Saka and it’s a second yellow for the midfielder. He’s off! It’s 10 vs 10. Capoue hurt himself in the challenge and was carried from the field on a stretcher, with the ref almost apologetically waving a yellow and then red over the shoulders of the medics.
94’ – Aubameyang very nearly grabs an unlikely equaliser right at the last, but is denied by Rulli from a tight angle.
- No top-flight English club has had more players sent off than Arsenal since Mikel Arteta was named manager. The Gunners have received ten red cards in 80 games in all competitions in that time.
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