Arsenal recovered from a dreadful first-half performance to snatch a vital away goal in a 2-1 defeat to Villarreal, leaving themselves firmly in the tie heading into next week’s Europa League semi-final second-leg.
The Gunners had failed to win in their last two Premier League games and continued that limp form against Unai Emery’s side, making the worst possible start by conceding just five minutes in, midfielder Manu Trigueros lashing home after good work from Samuel Chukwueze on the right flank.
That poor start was made even worse on 29 minutes, as former Real Madrid defender Raul Albiol added a second for the hosts, the Villarreal captain firing home at the back post after an excellent flick-on by Gerard Moreno from a corner.
The visitors then thought they’d been handed a much needed lifeline just prior to the break after Nicolas Pepe was brought down by on-loan Tottenham defender inside the penalty area, before VAR stepped in to overturn the decision after deeming Pepe to have handled the ball in the build-up.
With things already not going Arsenal’s way, their misery was compounded with 30 minutes to go as Dani Ceballos saw red, the Madrid loanee picking up his second yellow card of the night for a soft foul on Spanish midfielder Dani Parejo.
Down to 10-men and with a mountain climb heading into the final quarter of the match, the Gunners finally got the breakthrough they were after, Pepe netting his sixth goal of the competition from the spot to give his side a priceless away goal, after Bukayo Saka had drawn a foul inside the box.
Before tonight, Villareal had lost 3 of their previous 4 games against English opposition by an aggregate score of 8-2.
Enter Arsenal. 😬 pic.twitter.com/rk8XcvPADj
— Statman Dave (@StatmanDave) April 29, 2021
The Gunners task was then made slightly easier with ten minutes remaining, former Watford man Etienne Capoue receiving his marching orders for a second yellow card, the Frenchman taking out Saka and injuring himself in the process.
With the away side managing to hang on to keep the deficit at just one goal, the tie is now firmly in the balance heading into next week’s second-leg at the Emirates, with Arteta insisting that despite the defeat, his side are still in with a chance of progressing to the final.
“We didn’t want to come here and lose but after the way the game developed, you have to take the result. If you have to lose it is probably the best result we could have,” Arteta told BT Sport.
“Two different halves. We started to be us, in the first half there were so many moments we weren’t.
“We started to chase and were not precise with the ball, didn’t have enough control. We didn’t have enough threat or desire to attack the box, in the second half it was completely different.
“We are very used to that (Bukayo Saka playing well) this season, but it tells us we need to do much more as we cannot always rely on him. Bernd Leno was very good, at 2-0, the chance with Gerard Moreno, he saved us.
“We had a big chance with Auba to draw the game. I am confident we have a chance to win.”
Arsenal face a trip to St James’ Park to take on Steve Bruce’s in-form Newcastle United side on Sunday afternoon, before the second-leg against Villarreal at the Emirates on Thursday.