Arsenal’s Europa League hopes was last night dashed as Spanish club Villarreal came all the way from Spain to hold the Gunners to a draw that sealed a semi-final victory that has certainly ended Arsenal’s unbroken 25-season run of appearing in European competitions.
Trailing 2-1 from the first leg in Spain and knowing that victory in this tournament represented their only realistic route back into the Champions League, Mikel Arteta’s side could not find a way past the visitors’ stubborn defence.
Gunners captain Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang struck the post with a volley but it was a rare moment of threat in a display strangely passive for large parts. Nicolas Pepe and Emile Smith Rowe both fired efforts wide early in the second half and Aubameyang hit the post again with a downward header later in the game, but such moments were few and far between.
That the defeat came at the hands of former Arsenal boss Unai Emery will be especially galling for the Gunners. Emery was sacked in November 2019 after 18 months in charge, ultimately leading to the appointment of Arteta.
With Manchester United seeing off Roma in the other semi-final and Chelsea and Manchester City into the Champions League final, Arsenal’s loss ruins hope of a Premier League clean sweep of European competitions this season.
Villarreal will face United in Gdansk’s Stadion Miejski on 26 May. More importantly for the Gunners, though, the result effectively ends their season and their European chances – a big blow to a club that, a little over two weeks ago, was one of 12 prepared to walk away from the Champions League in order to join the proposed European Super League.
Arsenal blow their chance to save the season.
Arsenal have been a mainstay in European competition since the 1996-97 season, much of that time spent in the Champions League under Arsene Wenger, with the last four campaigns in the Europa League. But that run is now over, serving warning that the Gunners are arguably at their lowest point in terms of on-field performance since George Graham was sacked in February 1995.
There were high hopes when Arteta’s side beat Liverpool in August’s Community Shield, after winning last season’s FA Cup, but what has followed has been a model of inconsistency, every forward stride followed by two steps back. For such a crucial game, they were too nervous and ponderous in the first half, failing to open up a Villarreal side comforted by their first-leg advantage and determined not to be unbalanced.
Young, talented players showed flashes and then faded, while senior individuals, so crucial to guide a side through such situations, failed to step up when needed with the requisite composure and leadership. Aubameyang did his best but is clearly still hampered by fitness issues following a recent bout of malaria. His withdrawal late on, when a goal was needed to save the team’s season, was a clear nod to this.
Similarly, Kieran Tierney was a late addition to the starting XI, with Granit Xhaka picking up an injury in the warm-up, but after a spell out he was clearly not at his dynamic, penetrative best down the left. Arsenal’s first home meeting with Villarreal – a Champions League semi-final 15 years ago – was the final European game at Highbury. Without some serious summer surgery, Thursday’s game against the Spanish side may well be the last continental encounter the Emirates sees for some time.