Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang are of sufficient quality that means their goals can compensate for a lot of defensive jitters – but how many goals were ever going to be enough? At the Mestalla Stadium next Thursday, Unai Emery’s notoriously bad travellers will have their resolve tested in their semi-final second leg, although they at least have a lead to defend that feels reasonably substantial.
f the first European final for Arsenal in 13 long years of declining fortunes awaits later this month then they can look back on a night when the fragile confidence of this side was restored by two strikers who suffer none of the anxieties that afflict their team-mates.
It was close enough that until Aubameyang scored his goal in the 90th minute of the game, it barely felt like a victory at 2-1 with so many questions hanging in the air about Arsenal’s prospects away from home.
Their confidence had been pulverised by three straight league defeats, and while no one in the Emirates’ home seats could say with any confidence what might happen in Spain, three goals to one felt a lot more comfortable than two.
This is the Arsenal of the Emery era thus far: one in which a strike-force that took upwards of £100 million to acquire must make right the shortcomings of their defensive partners. It is a strange contrast, and although Valencia’s limitations were plain to see, the question is now what kind of Arsenal will emerge next Thursday. They have the players to secure their place in the Europa League final in Baku on May 29, but the form suggests that there will be chances for
In defence they struggled again, a kind of growing dread around the Emirates in those early stages that the away goal was inevitable and that no amount of animated complaining was going to waken their players to the danger. As usual, the fear was that it would come from something inexplicable from Shkodran Mustafi but there were other contenders too.
Arsenal gave up an away goal on 11 minutes amid a period of defensive chaos that for a while, sucked the life out of only their second semi-final since that Champions League final defeat of 2006. That Lacazette was able to rescue them with two first half goals said everything about his importance to the team, and when he and Aubameyang went forward, Arsenal looked like they belong on a much higher level than Valencia.
Ainsley Maitland-Niles was caught in two minds with a header back to Petr Cech and gave up a chance for Valencia to score. The ball was routinely given away in midfield.
Arsenal are still fighting, nonetheless. Those away defeats to BATE Borisov and Rennes in the first two knockout rounds after Christmas were topped by that fine performance in Naples last month which was one of their best of the season. They can win these kinds of games but nothing feels certain about this Europa League quest to save the season.
The second was a Granit Xhaka ball to the back post that showed up a vulnerability in the Valencia defence. Lacazette was virtually unchallenged in his header. There was a strange attempt to save it from the Brazilian goalkeeper Neto who pushed it onto the post and from there it went across the line. Arsenal were back on top, although they needed to do more.
With 15 minutes left, Emery replaced Mesut Ozil with Henrikh Mkhitaryan.
The German had, at times, carried the ball forward with his customary grace but the telling pass had been missing. It was time to try something different. Meanwhile, Arsenal were still giving up half-chances and the substitute Kevin Gameiro, once a Sevilla player under Emery, forced Cech into a save.
An urgency gripped Arsenal who seemed cognisant of the general anxiety that no one in the stadium much rated their chances away from home. Mkhitaryan had a positive effect on the team and oversaw a late rally. He and Lacazette both had a shot before Sead Kolasinac crossed to the back post for Aubameyang to finish and give Arsenal some comfort. They were still searching for another by the end, and they may well now have to score that fourth goal of the tie in Spain next week.
There was a good performance from Laurent Koscielny and at the start of the second half, Arsenal looked like they had finally hit their rhythm. Then the old mistakes started to creep back in. Emery had replaced Mateo Guendouzi before the hour to bring on Lucas Torreira, ordinarily his first choice of the pair for that role. Lacazette seemed to respond with what looked like a gesture of disbelief towards the bench.
It was on 11 minutes that the French defender Mouctar Diakhaby headed in from under the bar, with Arsenal’s defence panicking round him. They had failed to defend a corner deep beyond the back post that Rodrigo had headed back for a chance that was virtually unmissable given the current state of the Arsenal back three.
That was a low point, although not arguably the lowest which came when Maitland-Niles elected to head a low ball back to Cech after the goalkeeper, Emery’s Europa League selection, had made a messy block from a shot by Daniel Parejo. At that point there was restlessness among the home support that could have spooked the team – but they came back.
It took Arsenal’s strikers to demonstrate that Valencia had more than one weakness. Lacazette created the opening for his first goal with a wonderful right-footed ball that was shaped through the Valencia defence for Aubameyang to run onto. Aubameyang cut back in time to pick up the run of Lacazette and deliver the ball onto his left foot for the finish.