Villarreal (2) 2 Arsenal (0) 1
UEFA Europa League, Semi-Final, First Leg
Estadio de la Cerámica, Carrer Blasco Ibáñez, 2, 12540 Villareal, Castelló, Spain
Thursday, 29th April 2021. Kick-off time: 8.00pm
(4-2-3-1) Bernd Leno; Calum Chambers, Rob Holding, Pablo Marí, Granit Xhaka; Dani Ceballos, Thomas Partey; Bukayo Saka, Martin Ødegaard, Nicolas Pépé; Emile Smith-Rowe,
Substitutes: Hector Bellerin, Gabriel Magalhães, Willian Borges da Silva, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Cédric Soares, David Luiz,Reiss Nelson, Mohamed Elneny, Eddie Nketiah, Mat Ryan, Gabriel Martinelli, Arthur Okonkwo.
Scorers: Nicolas Pépé (72 mins)
Red Cards: Dani Ceballos (two yellow cards)
Yellow Cards: Thomas Partey, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang
Arsenal Possession Percentage: 53%
Referee: Artur Soares Dias (Portugal)
Assistant Referees: Rui Tavares (Portugal), Paulo Soares (Portugal)
Fourth Official: Tiago Martins (Portugal)
Referee Observer: Murat Ilgaz (Turkey)
VAR Team (UEFA): VAR Joao Pinheiro (Portugal); AVAR Luis Godinho (Portugal)
Attendance: A maximum of 300 attendees due to UK government coronavirus restrictions
Of course, it goes without saying, but winning this year’s Europa League is our best chance of qualifying for next season’s Champions League, so this two-leg semi-final becomes more than crucial to us all now. The doubtful players for tonight’s match will all get a late fitness check, before Mikel Arteta decides whether it is worth taking a gamble with them or not. Either way, a win is imperative in Spain tonight. Let’s go!
The match started at a fast pace, as expected, and between the two sides, our organisation was better, and our passing sharper. However, it appeared to matter not; literally on their first attack within five minutes of the start, Villarreal opened the scoring with Manu Trigueros’ strong right-footed shot from the right side of the box to the bottom left corner of the goal, which had Bernd Leno beaten all the way. After the early goal, the pattern of the game changed somewhat, with Arsenal chasing and Villarreal holding. Slowly we started to make a presence in the game, with both Dani Ceballos and Bukayo Saka making their presence felt with some clever play and good shooting. Indeed, after twenty-five minutes, a superb piece of play by our forwards led to Bukayo Saka attempting to score with a clever left-footed shot from the right side of the box, which went high and wide to the left of the Villarreal goal. Unfortunately, just before the half hour, following a Villarreal corner, Raúl Albiol’s right-footed shot from the right side of the six yard box sailed past Bernd Leno and into the back of our net, which now made our task that much harder. However, five minutes’ later, a penalty was given, when Nicolas Pépé was brought down in the penalty area; but sadly VAR intervened and it was cancelled when our man accidentally caught the ball with his hand just before he was fouled. We had two free-kicks given to us by the referee on the right-hand side of the pitch three or four minutes’ apart, when Bukayo Saka was brought down in both instances, and incredibly, the two chances were wasted. Just before the break, Villareal had a free-kick awarded to them after Dani Ceballos brought down Juan Foyth just outside the penalty area, which earned the Arsenal man a yellow card for his trouble. The subsequent free kick was easily picked up by Bernd Leno and shortly afterwards Artur Soares Dias blew the half-time whistle, mercifully.
No changes for us at half-time, incredibly so, it has to be said, and quite early on, Nicolas Pépé was unlucky not to score when his close-range shot was blocked, but the subsequent corner was a wasted exercise. However, in the opening stages of the second half, we applied more pressure to the Villareal goal, but we just could not get through their defence. We certainly played with more conviction, and were creating more chances than we ever did in the previous half, but that precious away goal was eluding us. Just before the hour, Dani Ceballos was sent off for a second yellow card, and now being down to ten men, tonight’s match has suddenly become that much harder for us. Villareal took full advantage of the extra man and after sixty-two minutes, Gabriel Martinelli replaced Martin Ødegaard in order to push up and try and nick a goal from somewhere, anywhere. Bernd Leno made a fabulous point-blank save from Gerard Moreno, and with twenty minutes of the match remaining, Bukayo Saka was brought down in the penalty area; Nicolas Pépé scored from the penalty spot, and in a blink of an eye gave us an incredible lifeline. Étienne Capoue was sent of for an appalling tackle on Bukayo Saka, thus bringing the numbers down to ten men apiece, which equalled matters up nicely. With six minutes of the match remaining, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang replaced a tired Bukayo Saka, which certainly sparked matters up a notch or two; in fact he had only been on the pitch a few minutes before he ended up receiving a yellow card! In the five minutes’ injury time, Emile Smith-Rowe and Nicolas Pépé were replaced by Willian and Mohamed Elneny, but despite intense pressure on the Villareal goal, we lost the match by the odd goal in three, sadly.
How quickly matters turn around in the wonderful world of professional football! At one point, with two goals down, we looked dead and buried, with next to no hope of getting anything out of this contest whatsoever. Then came the penalty, the two sendings off, and the return of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, and suddenly we were in with a chance of turning this match around. With the return leg at the Emirates next Thursday evening, the away goal in our top pocket, and with home advantage as well, we can turn this result to our advantage. With kitchen sinks and the suchlike being thrown in next week, after tonight’s performance and result, who would bet against us now? Who would dare to do such a thing? 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: Newcastle United at St. James’ Park on Sunday, 2nd May at 2.00pm (Premier League). Victoria Concordia Crescit.
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