Arsenal (0) 1 Slavia Prague (0) 1
UEFA Europa League, Quarter Final, First Leg
Emirates Stadium, Drayton Park, London N5 1BU
Thursday, 8th April 2021. Kick-off time: 8.00pm
(4-2-3-1) Bernd Leno; Hector Bellerin, Rob Holding, Gabriel Magalhães, Cédric Soares; Thomas Partey, Granit Xhaka; Bukayo Saka, Willian Borges da Silva, Emile Smith-Rowe; Alexandre Lacazette.
Substitutes: Dani Ceballos, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Nicolas Pépé, Pablo Marí, Reiss Nelson, Mohamed Elneny, Eddie Nketiah, Mat Ryan, Gabriel Martinelli, Karl Hein, Joel López Salguero, Miguel Azeez.
Scorers: Nicolas Pépé (86 mins)
Arsenal Possession Percentage: 55%
Referee: Andreas Ekberg (Sweden)
Assistant Referees: Mehmet Culum (Sweden), Stefan Hallberg (Sweden)
Fourth Official: Mattias Gestranius (Finland)
Referee Observer: Hugh Dallas (Scotland)
VAR Team (UEFA): VAR Juan Martinez Munuera (ESP); AVAR Guillermo Cuadra Fernandez (ESP)
Attendance: A maximum of 300 attendees due to UK government coronavirus restrictions
Sadly, it is looking like Kieran Tierney will be out of action for a while, possibly for the rest of the season, and Martin Odegaard is a doubt for tonight’s game with an ankle issue, whilst David Luiz is also unavailable with his knee problem; but Bukayo Saka’s hamstring injury is better, and Emile Smith Rowe’s thigh injury has now got the green light, so they will both be returning to the first-team squad, whilst Granit Xhaka is also available after illness. Let’s go!
It became evident from the start of the match, that we were up against a disciplined and strong outfit, certainly a team to be taken seriously, especially at this stage of the Europa League, where there are certainly no easy teams (apparently). Both sides spent the opening stages looking for perforations in each others’ defences, with probing balls flying hither and thither with no discernible outcome. The first real chance of the match fell to the visitors after fifteen minutes, when Alexander Bah ran down the right flank, and put a good ball into our penalty area, only for Hector Bellerin to nod it away, but the ball fell for Lukas Provod on the edge of our penalty area, who hit a firm, left-footed shot that went just inches over Bernd Leno’s crossbar. A few minutes later, Bukayo Saka found some space down the right, and put a good cross into the visitors’ six yard box for Alexandre Lacazette, but unfortunately the ball was cleared by Alexander Bah. At this stage of the game, we certainly showed good intent, with Rob Holding firing balls into the Slavia Prague penalty area, with Bukayo Saka ably assisting him in the process. Just before the half hour mark, Thomas Partey advanced deep into the visitors’ half, passed the ball right to Alexandre Lacazette who blasted it over the bar; a minute or so later, Rob Holding placed a super ball through to Bukayo Saka, who placed the ball just wide of the post with only the goalkeeper to beat. Although Slavia Prague had their first shot on target after thirty-five minutes, weak as it was, we were the most impressive team of the two by far out there on the pitch tonight. Bukayo Saka won a free-kick on the edge of the visitors’ box, after which Alexandre Lacazette stepped up to do the honours; it bounced off a defender in the wall, and eventually the ball flew back into the penalty area, only for Rob Holding to head it just inches over the bar. And still we applied pressure, but to no avail, with the first half finishing as a no-score draw, sadly.
We started the second half with no changes, and within a couple of minutes, Bukayo Saka was brought down on the edge of the visitors’ penalty area, and the subsequent free-kick saw Willian hit the outside of the post after curling it around the Slavia Prague wall, which was a superb effort. We were having the better of the second half, with both Bukayo Saka and Emile Smith-Rowe pushing balls around, looking for openings, and a few minutes’ later, we got caught in a classic smash’n’grab raid, and if it was not for the quick feet of Bernd Leno, we would have been a goal down to a Jan Boril shot. Then, incredibily, Alexandre Lacazette nicked the ball off the last defender near the halfway line, ran all the way through the middle on a one-on-one situation with the goalkeeper, opened his body up and sliced the ball off the top of the right-hand post! How can that be? Unbelievable miss, that could come back to haunt us if we are not careful. Gabriel Martinelli replaced Willian with eighteen minutes left of the match to liven things up a bit (as things were getting a bit stagnant out there), and a couple of minutes later, Thomas Partey went a yard wide of the right hand post with a shot from just outside the visitors’ penalty area. With thirteen minutes’ left on the clock, Bukayo Saka, Thomas Partey and Alexandre Lacazette were replaced by Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Nicolas Pépé and Mohamed Elneny; almost immediately this multi-substitution invigorated the team, with some close misses by Emile Smith-Rowe and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang happening after some good build-up play. Gabriel Martinelli’s left-footed shot went inches over the bar, helped by the goalkeeper, and after the resulting corner, our good build-up play just petered out. With four minutes’ of the match remaining, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang took advantage of some Slavia Prague sloppiness at the back and fed it through to Nicolas Pépé, who used his considerable pace to shrug off the defender, run into the box and chip it over the goalkeeper to score the opening goal of the match, finally. Dani Ceballos replaced Emile Smith-Rowe with a couple of minutes’ left on the clock, and in injury time, the nightmare scenario happened. Lukas Provod took a corner and the ball was headed on into the middle of our six-yard box; somehow it arrived to Tomas Holes at the back post, who dived to get his head on it from point-blank range, and all Bernd Leno could do, was push the ball up into the roof of the net, to make the final score one apiece.
So disappointing. We now have it all to do in Prague next Thursday, when by rights we should have been home and dry tonight. With eleven chances on goal, something surely should have happened out there? We had the chances, after all, and in many ways, we just threw it away, with half-hearted chances, and lacklustre play. The substitutions did revitalise us, and we did score a goal within minutes of fresh legs being introduced, but as usual, game management was non-existent out there, and we all just have to pray that something, somewhere happens between now and next week that inspires this group of players to grasp the match by the scruff of the neck and get into the semi-finals of this much-maligned competition. We’ll see.
Remember everyone, keep the faith, get behind the team and the manager, as this season is going to be crucial for our future success in all competitions. Stick with the winners. Our next match: Sheffield United at Bramall Lane on Sunday, 11th April at 7.00pm (Premier League). Victoria Concordia Crescit.
Too Dearly Loved To Be Forgotten: Arsenal v Racing Club de Paris 1930-1962 by Steve Ingless (Rangemore Publications, ISBN 978-1-5272-0135-4) is now available on Amazon.