With their dreams of European silverware still very much alive, Arsenal welcome Unai Emery’s Villarreal to the Emirates Stadium for the second leg of their Europa League semi-final on Thursday.
The Yellow Submarine travel to North London boasting a 2-1 lead from the first leg, with Nicolas Pepe’s penalty giving the Gunners hope following goals from Manu Trigueros and Raul Albiol.
The Europa League novice in Mikel Arteta was undone by serial winner Emery in the first leg last week, and Villarreal should have been out of sight after a totally dominant first-half performance, but Pepe’s second-half spot-kick means that the Gunners’ season is not done and dusted just yet.
With a top-four charge in the Premier League totally out of the question, and even a late push for a top-seven finish looking increasingly unlikely, Arsenal’s hopes for a return to the continental stage rest solely on Europa League success, but they at least go into the second leg with the wind in their sails following a 2-0 victory at Newcastle United.
Arteta’s team selection against the Magpies clearly showed where his priorities lie, but Newcastle barely had a sniff as Mohamed Elneny’s first Premier League goal put the Gunners ahead, and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang returned with a bang to put the game to bed in the second 45.
The win at St James’ Park saw Arsenal quickly snap a three-game winless run in all competitions, but their Emirates fortunes are a serious concern, as the Gunners have failed to win in five at the Emirates since their dominant North London derby victory over Tottenham Hotspur on March 14.
However, the Gunners have lost the first leg of Europa Leagues ties to BATE Borisov and Rennes since 2019, and both times they turned it around in the second leg to progress, but the mastermind of those triumphs will take his seat in the opposition dugout as his side hope to preserve their narrow advantage.
A seething Emery was not best pleased with the decision to award his former team a potentially decisive penalty when Bukayo Saka was felled in the area, but his side still have the upper hand in the tie, and the former Sevilla boss is no stranger to success in Europe’s secondary competition.
As is the case with their upcoming opponents Arsenal, Villarreal also secured a victory with a clean sheet in league action at the weekend, as 18-year-old winger Yeremy came off the bench to net a second-half winner against Getafe in La Liga.
Emery’s men are surely assured of a top-seven standing in Spain’s top flight, and given his personal affiliations with Arsenal, the Yellow Submarine’s vocal leader will do everything in his power to make his return to the Emirates a memorable one.
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Villarreal travel to North London on a nine-game winning streak in the Europa League, during which they have scored at least two goals on seven separate occasions, and a 1-1 draw away at Maccabi Tel Aviv represents the only time in this season’s tournament where the Yellow Submarine have failed to come up trumps.
Incredibly, Villarreal have won their last four Europa League games away from home without shipping a single goal, and they have only failed to progress in one of their last 16 European ties when winning the first leg, but that was to English opposition in Liverpool during the 2015-16 Europa League campaign.
Arteta remained coy when pressed for updates on Kieran Tierney and Alexandre Lacazette, but both players have been pictured in training and have a chance of being available the second leg.
David Luiz was taken off at Newcastle with a suspected hamstring problem, and while Arteta has not ruled him out of this game, Rob Holding is expected to return to the defence as Gabriel Magalhaes hopes to keep his spot over Pablo Mari.
Elneny is likely earn a start alongside Thomas Partey in midfield with Dani Ceballos suspended, while Calum Chambers, Emile Smith Rowe, Saka and Pepe should all earn recalls to the starting lineup too.
Etienne Capoue was being stretchered off the field when the referee brandished a red card to the former Tottenham Hotspur man, and his spot in midfield should be filled by ex-Gunner Francis Coquelin.
Spurs loanee Juan Foyth impressed on the right-hand side in the first leg before being forced off with a hamstring issue, and he joins Vicente Iborra in the visitors’ treatment room, but Emery has no fresh concerns from the weekend.
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Albiol and Gerard Moreno were both rested against Getafe with this game in mind, and Geronimo Rulli will hope to displace Sergio Asenjo in goal once again.
Arsenal possible starting lineup: Leno; Chambers, Holding, Gabriel, Xhaka; Partey, Elneny; Saka, Smith Rowe, Pepe; Aubameyang
Villarreal possible starting lineup: Rulli; Gaspar, Albiol, Torres, Pedraza; Chukwueze, Parejo, Coquelin, Trigueros; Moreno, Bacca
Emery has more than one incentive to steer Villarreal into the showpiece event, as the visiting boss not only has his European reputation to maintain, but also a sense of personal pride as he seeks to dump his former employers out of the tournament.
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The Gunners arguably should not even be in with a chance of progressing to the final, but Arteta will aim to galvanise his troops and plenty of his big names are well-rested. We think this one will go the distance and are ultimately backing Arsenal’s prowess from 12 yards to carry them through to Gdansk.
Our expert tipster partners at Sporita.com are predicting a double chance bet on a home win or an away win in this match. Click here to find out what else they are predicting for this game and for more of their tried-and-tested football tips.
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