Arsenal stepped back from the edge of the abyss and turned towards the final instead. Just when their European journey and their season appeared over, down to 10 men and trailing 2-0 through goals from Manu Trigueros and Raúl Albiol, unable to muster a shot on target and on the verge of falling at the hands of the manager they had sacked, Bukayo Saka won a penalty that gives them hope. Mikel Arteta’s side went down in Spain, but they didn’t go out, Nicolas Pépé scoring the away goal that provides something to build on in seven days’ time.
For much of the night it hadn’t seemed likely, and it may not seem like much, but it is something. More, in fact, than had appeared likely for so long. For Arsenal, happier with the result than the performance, certainly for the first hour, there would be relief and something of a revival. Gdansk feels within reach now. For Villarreal, there is a lead but also a feeling of lost opportunity. “They got out of here alive,” said Trigueros afterwards. “We should have killed them off.”
He had a point there; he had a point too when he suggested that Saka had been perpetrator as much as the victim on the penalty that changes the shape of this tie. That it hurt was understandable: not just because of the lead Villarreal had, the sense of superiority not made to count, and the injustice of the decision that denied them, but because of how big this was – an opportunity to reach their first ever final at the expense of the team that denied them 15 years ago.
Outside, thousands of Villarreal fans had gathered, yellow smoke rising around the ground, motorbikes revving as they circled, scarves whirling, flags waving. A banner had been hung across the street. “Our history, our dream, our moment,” it said. This was Villarreal’s fifth European semi-final. The previous four times they had fallen; none hurt more than against Arsenal in the 2006 Champions League. By the stadium, a banner said simply: “Vendetta.”
Inside the only fans were cardboard cutouts, the first glimpse of revenge exacted silently. Swiftly, too. It took just five minutes for Villarreal to take the lead. Juan Foyth, repeatedly allowed to step forward, found Samu Chukwueze who ran at Granit Xhaka, a weak link identified and exploited early. The ball slipped free and Trigueros hit it hard and low into the far corner.
Dani Ceballos had been exposed there too but it was the midfielder who most sought to get Arsenal back into the game, requesting the ball and the responsibility and finding a foothold in the game. The problem was, it was never any more than that. Shots from Saka and Thomas Partey sailed well over and Rob Holding headed wide, Gerónimo Rulli an untroubled figure.
On the other side, Dani Parejo dictated the tempo, slowing down and speeding up as circumstance demanded. His pass suddenly set Alfonso Pedraza away to win the corner that doubled their lead. Although Pedraza was denied as he dashed into the area, Parejo’s corner was headed on by Gerard Moreno and Albiol volleyed in at the far post.
This already seemed beyond Arsenal who were not bad exactly, just not anything really. Momentarily, they had a penalty but the VAR spotted that Pépé had controlled with his arm before Foyth tripped him. Villarreal, meanwhile, might have had more, Moreno slipping as he went round Bernd Leno and slicing another effort wide.
Half-time brought a change in personnel and in approach which may provoke accusations of conservatism, Emery replacing Paco Alcácer with Francis Coquelin. If that invited pressure, Arsenal were inclined to accept. Yet while they took a step forward, that impetus cost them when Ceballos received a second yellow card for treading on Parejo.
Here was an opportunity for Villarreal, Chukwueze slipping in Trigueros and then firing off a shot that Leno pushed away. Leno then denied Moreno, alone in the area. Arsenal were struggling but suddenly a lifeline appeared. Saka reached for it, in every sense, targeting a tumble over Trigueros that had Artur Dias pointing to the spot again. The Villarreal midfielder had moved rather less than the Arsenal attacker, Emery insisting that it shouldn’t have been given, but this time there was no turning back and Pépé scored.
Not long after, Villarreal too were down to 10 men, Étienne Capoue sent off as he was carried off following a challenge on Saka, the tie left in the balance. Arsenal looked for more and, pushing for the equaliser now, could even have got it when Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang drew a smart save in the final minute.