Before the game Unai Emery said he wanted a win and a clean sheet to take to Spain for the second leg. He got the former, but the latter was out of the question after just 11 minutes and a dodgy Arsenal start. Perhaps it was nerves, having lost three in a row coming into this one you can understand a measure of twitchiness among the Arsenal players, but we were found wanting earlier on.
After Sokratis conceded a free kick for which he was lucky to escape a booking, the lively Rodrigo beat our offside trap and squared the ball for one of three waiting Valencia players. It looked impossible to miss from such distance, but somehow Ezequiel Garay managed to do it, turning the ball over the bar when it looked far easier to score.
It was a big let-off but the reprieve didn’t last long. From a corner shortly afterwards the ball was headed back into the danger area, I don’t think Granit Xhaka did enough to compete for the header and Diakhaby was there to nod the visitors in front. Not ideal, and it would be a real test of this team’s character to respond. It might have been even worse when Ainsley Maitland-Niles’ decision to head back to Petr Cech after the keeper had made a save was almost punished by Guedes, but we got away with it, and within three minutes we were level.
After conceding, Alexandre Lacazette pointed to his temple, urging focus and concentration from his teammates, looking for them to respond. The striker led by example, setting Aubameyang free down the inside left channel, and when the Gabon international turned inside and saw his shooting option blocked off, he also saw his mate had continued his run forward. He laid it off into space, the Frenchman did the rest and we were level.
Valencia were still enjoying some reasonable possession, Rodrigo in particular kept buzzing between the midfield and back four, but it was Arsenal who scored again. From controlled possession down the left, Xhaka crossed into the box, Lacazette pulled off his marker and headed down into the ground and over the line. Technology gave the goal, Neto did palm it away but it was clear the ball had gone in, and after an iffy start we were on top.
Xhaka created another good chance for Aubameyang, his shot bounced down then over, but it was the two forwards who really provided the spark for this Arsenal team. The work they put in was fantastic, and in the second half Lacazette in particular should have had more goals to his name. He headed fresh air after a great ball into the box by Aubameyang, and when the ball fell for him just a few yards out he saw his shot saved by the keeper.
With just a one goal lead and an away leg to come, it felt like another goal would be very useful, but it led to a strange dynamic in the game. Valencia didn’t want to concede again, but Arsenal were a bit reluctant to commit at times knowing another away goal would be hugely problematic in the overall context of the tie. Had Sead Kolasinac done more with the ball when he got into good positions perhaps we might have threatened more often, but when he overlaps it’s basically hit and hope with his final ball.
Which is kind of ironic because late on it was his delicate and deliberate floated pass to the back post which brought about Aubameyang’s goal and Arsenal’s third. The club’s leading goalscorer made no mistake with the finish, bringing his tally for the season to 25, and in terms of taking a lead to Valencia next week, it felt like a hugely important moment. Conceding early was definitely not in the plan, but to score three times gives us a real chance, and puts us in a pretty strong position for the second leg.
Afterwards, Unai Emery said:
my thoughts now is that it continues to be very difficult in the second leg away. It’s 50/50 and it’s a good result at home in the first leg, but the second leg is going to be very difficult and maybe different. I consider that for two teams it’s 50/50.
I’d suggest it’s weighted a little more in our favour than that, but I can understand Emery’s reluctance to acknowledge that in public. Our away record will be very much on his mind. This might well be a team that can go to Napoli and keep a clean sheet, but it’s also one that can shit the bed in a variety of unpleasant and uncomfortable ways. A circumspect approach to what we have to do next week is not at all unreasonable.
However, the Spaniard had plenty to be pleased about from his side last night. As I mentioned I thought the two strikers were excellent. Not just in how many problems they caused the opposition from an attacking point of view, but how hard they worked for the good of the team. Chasing, harrying, tracking back, winning tackles, nicking the ball, they absolutely led the team from the front.
I know Xhaka contributed to our chance creation, but it was almost like Aubameyang and Lacazette had seen what happened in previous games and thought ‘Well, if nobody’s going to provide for us, we’d better do it ourselves’. I’m not sure that’s a sustainable approach, but last night it worked and they deserve serious credit for it and the impact they had on the tie.
It’s also impossible not to give some love this morning to Laurent Koscielny who played like a man with unfinished business in this tournament. When he breaks into a sprint, you can clearly see how he’s trying to both push his body through the pain and move in a way which doesn’t exacerbate the discomfort he clearly feels. At one point the cameras saw him gesture to somebody, a kind of ‘That’s it, I’m done’, and I feared he’d injured himself again, but afterwards Emery explained it was just tiredness that saw him taken off for Nacho Monreal.
At 33, and just a year after one of the most damaging injuries a footballer can suffer, he’s putting it all on the line for his team. In some ways it’s inspiring to watch, in others it’s difficult to see a player demand so much of himself because you know it hurts him, but he played his part in last night’s win and will be important for the second leg. I wouldn’t have any expectations that he’ll feature in the Brighton game this weekend. He needs – and deserves – a week of rest and recuperation before we go the Mestalla next Thursday.
So, all in all, a positive night. I know their away goal is a bit of a worry, but I think we’ve got enough in us to score one over there too, and a two goal lead going into a semi-final second leg is not to be sniffed at. We’ve got one foot in the final, but before then we have to consider our final home game of the season, because the top four is still not out of the equation.
The fight on two fronts continues.
Because we played late last night, I’m recording an Arsecast this morning, that’ll be available before lunch, more or less, and I’ll update here and on Twitter @arseblog when that’s ready for you.