Shaky Arsenal recover to put one foot firmly in Europa final
Arsenal 3 Valencia 1
Perhaps there is hope for English clubs in Europe after all. In the week that both Tottenham and Liverpool suffered first leg defeats in the semi-finals of the Champions League, and on the night that Chelsea were held by an entertaining Eintracht Frankfurt, Arsenal at least came from behind to beat Valencia 3-1, taking a giant step towards reaching the Europa League final later this month.
A new addition to Arsenal's trophy cabinet in Unai Emery's debut season would certainly be welcome. But the real prize for winning the tournament is of course qualification for next season's Champions League, particularly after a torrid run of four defeats in their last five Premier League matches has left Arsenal's hopes of finally reclaiming their place in the top four looking exceptionally slim.
A great number of the flaws that have been so apparent during that slump were again in evidence here, but after a pedestrian start during which a collection of defensive gaffes allowed Mouctar Diakhaby to open the scoring, Arsenal fought back impressively, with Alexandre Lacazette's first-half brace and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang's late goal turning this tie in their favour.
Just the third Arsenal player to score twice in a European semi-final after club legends Charlie George and - more surprisingly - Steve Bould, Lacazette found himself with a number of chances to kill off the tie in the second-half. But it was Aubameyang who scored the vital third, with Valencia now requiring an improbable comeback to overturn this deficit at the Mestalla next week.
Although improved here, an anxious opening fifteen minutes demonstrated that Arsenal are not completely over their recent problems.
Once again this season they started at a snail's pace, with Emery lasting less than a minute before springing out of his seat in frustration. Does any manager spend less time contentedly sat in his dugout? Valencia sensed their opportunity and padded forward, almost taking the lead when Daniel Parejo spotted Rodrigo in a bewildering amount of space at the back stick.
The former Bolton Wanderers loanee selflessly nodded the ball back across the face of goal, but Ezequiel Garay panicked, spooning the ball high over Petr Cech's goal and into the damp night air. Arsenal had been warned.
But that did not mean they had learned their lesson. Just moments later they found themselves with a corner and wisely decided to repeat their trick: Parejo skimming the ball to Rodrigo, again waiting in his very own pocket of the Emirates. This time his header was directed at Diakhaby, who somehow managed to climb over three bungling Arsenal defenders to head home.
Emery sank to his haunches. The Spanish commentators shouted the word 'GOAL' until their voices cracked. And the Emirates, up until that point a cold concrete bowl of indifference, began to grizzle miserably. Arsenal's season was in real danger of sinking without trace. But, after weathering another five minutes of pressure, Arsenal were to strike against the run of play, turning the match in their favour in the process.
Naturally, it was Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Arsenal's leading goalscorers this season, who combined to make the difference. The Frenchman's slide-rule pass to his strike partner was a thing of beauty, perfectly weighted and struck with clinical precision, with Aubameyang racing through on goal. Instead of shooting he deftly turned Facundo Roncagli and waited, with Lacazette quick to arrive to side-foot home and level the score.
Valencia's defence didn't do much better for the second, as Lacazette doubled his tally. This time it was Granit Xhaka who spotted the gap, his sumptuously arched cross disappearing over the head of the hapless Roncagli for Lacazette to nod towards goal. Valencia goalkeeper Neto did well to palm the attempt onto the post, only for the ball to drift over the line before he could properly push it clear.
Come the sixtieth minute, Lacazette really should have been celebrating his hat-trick. Aubameyang found Lacazette in a slither of space on the very edge of the six-yard box, his deft chip begging to be put away. But Lacazette, having taken his eyes off the ball for just a fraction of a second to glance at his marker, missed the ball and with it the chance to shatter Valencia.
It wasn't his only chance to potentially kill off the tie ahead of next week's trip to Spain's east coast, as Valencia's defence creaked under the pressure. Moments later the ball popped to his feet just eight yards from goal, with Neto doing superbly well to deflect away his low shot with his legs, before smothering the rebound.
It was a sign of Emery's determination to score again that both of Arsenal's in-form strikers were left on the pitch until the end and it was fitting that Aubameyang was the man to score the third.
It looked as though Neto had done enough to save Valencia's skin when he brilliantly saved yet another Lacazette attempt. But the ball broke kindly for Sead Kolasinac, with the full-back's deflected cross volleyed home at the back post by Aubameyang.
The goal crowned an impressive comeback from Arsenal, who are now the overwhelming favourites to progress to this month's final in Baku.