Thursday, June 30

Nicolas Pépé shoots from a standstill to give Arsenal a lifeline against Villarreal | European League

Arsenal took a step back from the edge and into the semi-final. Just when their European journey seemed practically over, with 10 men remaining and losing 2-0 to goals from Manu Trigueros and Raúl Albiol, unable to finish on goal, and on the verge of elimination at the hands of the coach they had fired. , Bukayo Saka won a penalty that gives them hope. Mikel Arteta’s team fell in Spain, but did not come out, Nicolas Pépé scored the away goal that gives them something to build on in seven days.

For much of the night it didn’t seem likely, and it may not seem like much, but it is something. More, in fact, than seemed likely for much of the night. On Arteta’s side there would be relief, also a sense of rebellion. For Villarreal, there will be a sense of missed opportunity, just when history calls. There may also be remorse, questions about their approach, whether conservatism would have cost them.

Outside, thousands of Villarreal fans had gathered, yellow smoke billowing from the ground, motorcycles speeding as they circled the stadium, scarves spinning, flags waving. A banner had been hung across the street. “Our history, our dream, our moment,” he said. It was huge, Villarreal’s fifth European semi-final. The previous four times they had fallen; None hurt more than against Arsenal in the 2006 Champions League. Next to the stadium, a banner read simply: “Vendetta.”

Inside the only fans were cardboard cutouts, silently demanded revenge. Quickly too. Villarreal took only five minutes to take the lead, the play was built on the right, where many more would build. Juan Foyth, who was repeatedly allowed to step forward, encountered Samu Chukwueze running on Granit Xhaka, an early identified and exploited weak link. The ball escaped and Manu Trigueros hit it hard and flush in the far corner.

Ceballos had been weak before Chukwueze’s approach, but it was the midfielder who most wanted Arsenal to return to the game, asking for the ball and responsibility, playing passes and then calling to receive them again. It seemed to involve Martin Ødegaard as well and little by little the visitors took hold. The problem was, it was just that. Shots by Bukayo Saka and Thomas Partey went over the crossbar as Rob Holding headed wide, Gerónimo Rulli a calm figure.

Meanwhile, Pau Torres came out without a hitch, Gerard Moreno dropped to link and Dani Parejo began to dictate the pace, slowing down and then suddenly releasing teammates on both sides. A pass took Alfonso Pedraza away to win the corner that doubled the advantage. Despite being denied when he lunged into the area, Parejo took the corner, where Moreno headed. At the far post, Raúl Albiol volleyed in the second.

This already seemed beyond Arsenal, not as bad as anything really. Momentarily, they thought they had a penalty when a sudden break ended with Foyth tripping Pépé, but he had controlled it with his hand. And Villarreal could have had more too, Moreno slipped around Leno and cut off another effort when he opened up to him.

The break brought a change in staff and, apparently briefly, in focus. Emery eliminated Paco Alcácer, a forward, and replaced him with Francis Coquelin, leaving only Moreno in front. If that invited pressure, Arsenal were inclined to accept. Yet as they stepped forward, pressing higher, Villarreal lined up more men before them and had yet to produce a shot on goal when that same momentum cost them, Ceballos received a second yellow card for stepping on Parejo.

Here was an opportunity for Villarreal, Chukwueze slipped into Trigueros and then fired a shot that Leno pushed. Coquelin then played at Moreno, whose shot was stopped by Leno. Soon after, Leno was saved from him again, this time after Chukwueze ran towards Xhaka once more. Arsenal were on the brink, if they hadn’t already gotten over it. And then all of a sudden there was a life preserver.

Saka was the one who reached him, in every way, pointing to a fall on Trigueros that made Artur Dias point out the place again. This time there was no turning back and Pépé scored the penalty. Villarreal can reflect that he had protected rather than pushed, and now he had been punished, not long after, they too were left with 10 men, Étienne Capoue expelled and taken after a challenge to Saka, the tie remained in the balance.

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