Arsenal’s Europa League hopes were dashed as Villarreal sealed a semi-final victory that will almost certainly end the Gunners’ unbroken 25-season run of appearing in European competition.
Trailing 2-1 from the first leg in Spain and knowing that victory in this tournament represented their only realistic route back into the Champions League, Mikel Arteta’s side could not find a way past the visitors’ stubborn defence.
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang struck the post with a volley but it was a rare moment of threat in a display strangely passive for large parts.
Nicolas Pepe and Emile Smith Rowe both fired efforts wide early in the second half and Aubameyang hit the post again with a downward header later in the game, but such moments were few and far between.
That the defeat came at the hands of former boss Unai Emery will be especially galling for the Gunners. Emery was sacked in November 2019 after 18 months in charge, ultimately leading to the appointment of Arteta.
With Manchester United seeing off Roma in the other semi-final and Chelsea and Manchester City into the Champions League final, Arsenal’s loss ruins hopes of a Premier League clean sweep of European competitions this season.
Villarreal will face United in Gdansk’s Stadion Miejski on 26 May.
More importantly for the Gunners, though, the result effectively ends their season and their European chances – a big blow to a club that, a little over two weeks ago, was one of 12 prepared to walk away from the Champions League in order to join the proposed European Super League.
Arsenal blow their chance to save the season
Arsenal have been a mainstay in European competition since the 1996-97 season, much of that time spent in the Champions League under Arsene Wenger, with the last four campaigns in the Europa League.
But that run is now over, serving warning that the Gunners are arguably at their lowest point in terms of on-field performance since George Graham was sacked in February 1995.
There were high hopes when Arteta’s side beat Liverpool in August’s Community Shield, after winning last season’s FA Cup, but what has followed has been a model of inconsistency, every forward stride followed by two steps back.
For such a crucial game, they were too nervous and ponderous in the first half, failing to open up a Villarreal side comforted by their first-leg advantage and determined not to be unbalanced.
Young, talented players showed flashes and then faded, while senior individuals, so crucial to guide a side through such situations, failed to step up when needed with the requisite composure and leadership.
Aubameyang did his best but is clearly still hampered by fitness issues following a recent bout of malaria. His withdrawal late on, when a goal was needed to save the team’s season, was a clear nod to this.
Similarly, Kieran Tierney was a late addition to the starting XI, with Granit Xhaka picking up an injury in the warm-up, but after a spell out he was clearly not at his dynamic, penetrative best down the left.
Arsenal’s first home meeting with Villarreal – a Champions League semi-final 15 years ago – was the final European game at Highbury.
Without some serious summer surgery, Thursday’s game against the Spanish side may well be the last continental encounter the Emirates sees for some time.
Emery has the last laugh
Villarreal’s boss is the undoubted master of the Europa League.
He won the competition three times on the trot as Sevilla boss between 2014 and 2016 before leading the Gunners themselves to the final in 2019, where they were comprehensively beaten by Chelsea.
This is another triumph for the Spaniard and a sweet one at that, coming at the ground where he was never fully embraced by a crowd fed on a regular diet of success by Wenger and frustrated at the way the Frenchman’s regime was allowed to slide from its early heights.
As in the first leg, in which Villarreal were somewhat unfortunate to concede, Emery won the tactical battle against his successor and compatriot Arteta.
They were disciplined, well-drilled, alive to where the danger might come from and willing to battle when they had to.
They had to face some adversity too, with arguably their most dangerous player, Samuel Chukwueze, departing injured in the first half.
But they adapted and continued to compete with a minimum of fuss.
A sweet moment for Emery, but also for Villarreal, who were beaten by Arsenal in the Champions League semi-finals in 2006 and quarter-finals three years later, and now, finally, have their revenge.