Alexandre Lacazette’s brace, coupled with a late finish by Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang helped Arsenal to a 3-1 win over Valencia – who now have it all to do in their Europa League semi-final return leg next week.
Valencia’s bright start stuns Gunners
It wasn’t exactly a straightforward victory by any means for the Gunners, though that has often proven the case this term. Their defensive deficiencies reared its ugly head once more early on and Marcelino’s men could have been 3-0 up after 20 minutes.
Mouctar Diakhaby reacted quickest to head home at Petr Cech’s far post from Daniel Parejo’s corner after 10 minutes, following Rodrigo’s timely headed flick-on across goal.
It was a sloppy finish to concede from the hosts’ perspective, yet another one from a set-piece and yet they had been let off the hook. Just three minutes earlier, defender Ezequiel Garay wildly sliced a close-range effort over the bar after Rodrigo’s pinpoint cross – before captain Parejo tested Cech from distance minutes afterwards.
Misplaced passes, gaps being exploited in midfield and with a lull around the Emirates, Arsenal needed to respond. They did precisely that to level the scoring after 17 minutes, following great link-up play down the left-hand side.
Lacazette levels then propels arsenal into the lead
The returning Mesut Ozil and Lacazette both did well to hold possession and advance in transition, before the latter combined with an unmarked Aubameyang ahead of him. He evaded the attention of two Valencia defenders before unselfishly teeing up the Frenchman, who coolly slotted away a much-needed equaliser to settle their nerves.
Aubameyang squandered a promising opportunity minutes later, after tenacious work saw him win possession near the halfway line and gallop forward on a solo run into the box. He scooped his strike high and wide over the bar, but it was a sign of things to come.
Just four minutes later, they were celebrating taking the lead. It was Lacazette once more, this time after an excellent lofted pass by Granit Xhaka saw the Frenchman beat Facundo Roncaglia to the ball before aiming goalwards with a downward header. Despite Neto’s best efforts, he was unable to stop it trickling over the line at his far post – clawing it to safety proved futile once it floated over the goalline.
He could’ve had a first-half hat-trick, but missed a close-range header from another inviting Xhaka delivery – this time from a corner minutes after the restart.
Diakhaby found himself booked after a late challenge on compatriot Lacazette in the 30th minute, which signalled a shift in momentum as the Gunners continued to grow in confidence.
That’s not to say Valencia didn’t pose a counter-attacking threat, they did.
Shkodran Mustafi, who spent two years with Los Che before a £35m move to north London in 2016, committed a needless foul 30 yards out and fortunately for him, Parejo was unable to replicate Messi’s wonder-strike from distance. If ever there was a necessary warning though of the visitors’ threats, especially with an important away goal in the bank, that was it.
Nervy second-half, Valencia press for another goal
Neither side made any half-time alterations and Valencia started brightly after the restart. Rodrigo left Sokratis for dead before watching the chance he created near the byline narrowly cleared to safety by a ruffled Arsenal backline.
They still hadn’t learned their lesson, it appeared. Goncalo Guedes, relatively muted in the first-half, was inches away from levelling the scores once more – but for a crucial goal-saving headed interception by captain Laurent Koscielny, clearly struggling with an ankle knock.
Lucas Torreira, a surprise omission from Emery’s starting eleven, replaced the solid Matteo Guendouzi just before the hour mark while Sokratis made two important interceptions in quick succession as Valencia continued cranking up the pressure.
Aubameyang should’ve had another assist, but for poor timing on Lacazette’s part in the box. He burst down the flank and floated an inviting pass across Neto’s goal, but his strike partner was unable to connect on what would’ve sealed a well-deserved hat-trick.
Then three minutes later, Lacazette was denied twice in seconds as Neto made an excellent stop with his outstretched leg at the near post before Gabriel’s crucial sliding block helped alleviate the danger as they eventually cleared their lines. How the scoreline remained 2-1 at this point was a mystery.
Fresh legs, impetus and more chances missed
After 70 minutes, Marcelino made a double change – Guedes and Carles Soler making way for Daniel Wass and Kevin Gameiro. The latter nearly scored a minute after his introduction, after Parejo’s probing pass fed the Frenchman’s run into the box, but for an important reaction stop off-his-line by an alert Cech to keep his team ahead.
Ozil lasted 73 minutes before being replaced for Henrikh Mkhitaryan, while Sead Kolasinac’s success down the left-hand side was nullified by his disappointing deliveries into the box.
Gabriel was called into action once again against his former side, this time making a last-ditch interception to deny Aubameyang. Xhaka released another excellent pass but the Brazilian reacted quickly to thwart Auba as he shaped to shoot.
Gameiro failed to apply the finishing touch at the end of a promising move after Parejo and Wass combined down the right, before Koscielny limped off to a warm reception from the Emirates crowd, aware of just how important his presence was at the back for them.
Then finally, one of Kolasinac’s deliveries paid off. With time ticking down and stoppage-time on the clock, Aubameyang slammed home at Neto’s far post after Sead’s looping cross evaded the visitors’ backline. It doubled their lead on the evening while giving them some much-needed breathing space with a tricky away test at the Mestalla to come next Thursday.
Ultimately, Valencia will be ruing their missed chances – as they could’ve netted three before half-time on another day. It’s not an impossible task especially with an away goal scored and given the Gunners’ defensive frailties, but the signs don’t appear encouraging for Marcelino’s men in their quest to reach this year’s Europa League Final.
Elsewhere in the evening’s other semi-final, Eintracht Frankfurt were held to a 1-1 draw against Arsenal’s London rivals Chelsea. Pedro’s strike could prove pivotal ahead of their return to Stamford Bridge next week.