Arsenal's Season In TATTERS As Emery's Villarreal Pushes Gunners Out Of Europa League

 Revenge being a dish best served cold, there really is no better place for it than England in springtime.

The chill that passed through Arsenal shortly after 9.45pm last night, however, had little to do with the weather, or even the payback meted out specifically by the coach they sacked Unai Emery. It is the prospect of a season without European football to warm them that freezes the blood in these parts. It will be Arsenal’s first since 1995-96.

There is no small irony in the final indignity being meted out by Villarreal coach Emery, the man Arsenal ditched for Mikel Arteta. He arrived with a team that was disciplined, dangerous on the counter-attack and rode its luck in a second-half when Arsenal threw all they had at progress, albeit belatedly.

They were too slow out of the traps, too slow to put Villarreal under and only introduced Alexandre Lacazette, a second striker, with ten minutes remaining. By then two outstanding headed chances had fallen to Rob Holding, a central defender, who miss them both. 

The first, from a Bukayo Saka corner, went over, the next went wide. Minutes later, a cross from Hector Bellerin picked out Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, but his header hit a post before being hooked away by Raul Albiol.

On the touchline, Emery gestured to his players, arms wide as if trying to keep apart fighting brothers. This will mean more than just a push back at Arsenal to him, and his club. Villareal are tiny, compared to the giants of Spain, and a European final has long been their dream. 

This is Emery’s competition too – the one in which he made his name as coach of Sevilla. His Arsenal tenure harmed his reputation, Villarreal have restored it. The chance to face down a club of Manchester United’s size in Gdansk is huge, too.

For Arsenal and Arteta, though, this was a bleak denouement. There is still an outside chance of European qualification through the league but it is slim. 

Questions will be asked about progress and why it took so long for alarm bells to sound here. Villarreal are known as the Yellow Submarines, but it was Arsenal who looked sunk.   

There was a first-half moment that seemed to sum up Arsenal’s problems with this tie, certainly initially. They won a corner – not a common occurrence – and Martin Odegaard walked over to take it. And there was the problem. He walked. He didn’t run, didn’t even jog. 

He put no pressure on Villarreal, removed all intensity from the play. Villarreal massed in the middle and repelled, comfortably. 

Why don’t some players get it? English intensity is feared on the continent, the screw that is turned by the best English sides in Europe – think peak Manchester United under Sir Alex Ferguson – often decides occasions such as this. Instead, Villarreal were allowed to ease into the game, play it their way for long periods.

To be fair, it wasn’t the best start for Mikel Arteta’s men. Granit Xhaka picked up a muscle injury in the warm-up – tightness was the official explanation – and had to be replaced by Kieran Tierney. Under normal circumstances this would be far from disaster – some would even argue it was preferable – except Tierney has been out injured and, if he were fit, would surely have started. Maybe it was this that explained Arsenal’s struggle to get going.

Meaning it was Villarreal who began brightest, despite having a first leg lead to protect. Unai Emery was often accused of being cautious during his Arsenal tenure, but he was on the front foot here, the team front-loaded and ready to attack. 

After just five minutes Samuel Chukwueze cut inside from the right and unleashed a shot which Bernd Leno flicked over the bar. Not long after, Arsenal’s goalkeeper was in action again, heading away an overhit back pass from Thomas Partey that could have resulted in an embarrassing own goal.

It was all Villarreal and when Partey tripped Daniel Parejo just outside the area, the midfield stepped up to take the kick and curled it narrowly over the bar. Arsenal could not get into the game at all. They caught a break only when the dangerous Chukwueze collapsed to the ground after 28 minutes, with no-one near him. He was carried off on a stretcher, replaced by Yeremi Pino, but it seemed to halt Villarreal’s momentum. 

Their chances were limited in what remained of the first-half – a Manu Trigueros shot blocked and one from Gerard Moreno that was deflected narrowly wide off the boot of Pablo Mari. A straighter clip and it might have sneaked in.

Arsenal finally began to threaten, though, usually through Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. He had said prior to the game that he was to blame, in part, for the disappointments of this campaign and that much is true. Arsenal paid through the nose to secure his services and have been poorly rewarded: a Europa League final would be some form of compensation. 

After the ball had bobbled around the Villarreal area, chances to clear spurned, it was Aubameyang who lobbed it back in and when Parejo cleared, Aubameyang whose shot skimmed the outside edge of the far post, for Arsenal’s first chance in earnest.

Aubameyang again had the next shot after 39 minutes which came straight at Geronimo Rulli in Villarreal’s goal, only for the Argentinian to spill it. The ball looked to have squirmed through his legs only for Rulli to turn and pounce on it in time to save his team and his face.

There was more urgency from Arsenal after half-time, thankfully. Barely two minutes in Tierney dinked a lovely pass to Nicolas Pepe – Arsenal’s star turn in this competition – who should have done more with a shot across the face of goal. 

A cross from Hector Bellerin two minutes later was diverted by the merest flick from Rulli, straight to the feet of Emile Smith Rowe. With admirable coolness he picked out a far post spot with his chip, but directed it narrowly wide.

Now pressing properly, the danger was in the Villarreal counter-attack and Gerard should have done better after 52 minutes when he broke only for Leno to again come to Arsenal’s rescue. He got fingertips to a cross-shot from Pino soon after, too.

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