Lively Pepe averts disaster after Arsenal, Villarreal see red in chaotic clash

Date published: Thursday 29th April 2021 9:54 - Steve Pearson


Nicolas Pepe notched a crucial away goal from the spot to leave Arsenal’s Europa League semi-final tie with Villarreal hanging in the balance.

Arsenal knew the Europa League constituted their last realistic hopes of securing a place in next season’s Champions League. If that wasn’t enough, the sight of former Gunners boss Unai Emery in the opposition dugout raised the stakes further.

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Mikel Arteta would have hoped for a steady start, but was in for a rude awakening within six minutes.

Samuel Chukwueze was allowed to run at the retreating Granit Xhaka inside the area before the ball bobbled to Manu Trigueros. Striding on to the ball, the midfielder struck a first-time shot sweetly and beyond Bernd Leno to put Arsenal in early arrears.

Arsenal responded well, quickly getting on the front foot and causing problems through Nicolas Pepe down the left. Martin Odegaard was also finding his feet, scheming in central areas seeking to unlock Villarreal‘s stern defence.

The Norwegian managed to pick out Bukayo Saka in a dangerous position, but the young forward lacked composure, blazing over with a curling effort.

Just as the visitors were building pressure, the Yellow Submarine delivered a sucker punch through veteran centre-half Raul Albiol.

Slack marking allowed for a free header from a corner, with the ball flicking off a Villarreal shoulder to Albiol at the far post. The 35-year-old ghosted in behind Thomas Partey and doubled the hosts’ advantage with a simple close-range finish.

Hope returned after Arsenal were awarded a penalty after the lively Pepe was felled. Villarreal protests for a handball in the build-up were fierce, and proved justified when VAR overturned the decision after Pepe handled to control the ball over the top.

Any chances of an Arsenal fightback were dealt a major blow from within when Dani Ceballos saw red soon after the break.

The Spaniard received his second booking after making contact with Dani Parejo’s ankle after the Spaniard had gone to ground in a sliding challenge.

Arteta shuffled his pack with the introduction of Gabriel Martinelli for Odegaard. With half an hour remaining, Arsenal were in desperate need of a lifeline.

Gerard Moreno came close to adding a third after Arsenal’s centre-halves were caught napping, but Leno was on hand to palm the powerful strike over the bar.

The importance of that save would be magnified moments later when Saka drove at the Villarreal defence and drew a penalty from Trigueros.

Pepe stepped up to the spot and made no mistake, coolly slotting the ball down the middle after the goalkeeper dived to his right.

The tide was turning when former Tottenham midfielder Etienne Capoue reduced Villarreal‘s man advantage after his receiving his second yellow card. The Frenchman collided with Saka and emerged the worse for ware after leaving the field on a stretcher.

With the numbers even, and both sides seemingly content with the scoreline, the pace and intensity took a noticeable dip in the closing stages.

Substitute Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang spurned a glorious opportunity to level the scores late on, but fired his effort straight at the goalkeeper, much to Arteta’s chagrin on the sideline.

Ultimately, Villarreal emerged with a 2-1 victory on the night, though with Pepe’s vital away goal, Arsenal will fancy their chances in the return leg next week.


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