Arsenal aim to banish the ghosts of last season’s near-miss in a UEFA Europa League campaign that has provided hope for a bright future under new manager Unai Emery

BY CHRIS BURKE

GUNNERS SEEK DREAM END TO NEW BEGINNING

Amid the euphoria of Arsenal’s masterful semi-final victory at Valencia, it was possible to make out a healing quality. Amid the celebrations, catharsis. Goalkeeper Petr Čech spoke afterwards of the club’s supporters “waiting so long” for European success – he could easily have been talking about the players themselves.

What a difference a year makes. The script had been written, approved and was ready to print when Arsène Wenger announced his imminent departure ahead of the UEFA Europa League semis last season. What better way to close his 22 years in charge than with his first European trophy? Sadly for fans of perfect endings, Atlético de Madrid had a story of their own to tell and eked out a 2-1 aggregate victory. The Gunners left Spain ruing what might have been.

Now they can contemplate a perfect start. Wenger bequeathed his successor another tilt at glory in the UEFA Europa League and, in Unai Emery, Arsenal appointed a manager with immaculate pedigree in this competition. A three-time winner with Sevilla, the Spaniard had big shoes to fill when he took the reins, but he travels to Baku as the first Arsenal boss to reach a European final in his debut season.

“It’s fresh air for the club,” said captain Laurent Koscielny, Emery having made a quick impression with 11 consecutive wins in all competitions between August and October. “He came here with his ideas and he knows the football he wants to play. He tries to give all the ingredients for the players to learn about his tactics.”

Danny Welbeck (right) struck twice in a season disrupted by injury. Emile Smith Rowe and Joe Willock (below) both scored away to Vorskla

Few will have been more soothed by Arsenal’s run to the final than the French centre-back himself. Koscielny ruptured an Achilles tendon during the Atlético loss last season, an injury that robbed him of a role in France’s FIFA World Cup triumph. He returned, perhaps fittingly, in a UEFA Europa League game, as the Gunners ended Group E with a 1-0 defeat of Qarabağ.

That brought a fifth straight clean sheet in the section for Emery’s charges. They had secured qualification with a goalless draw against Sporting CP on matchday four – the only group match they failed to win – and clinched top spot with a 3-0 success away to Ukrainian side Vorskla, around 500 Arsenal fans braving freezing conditions to watch a youthful line-up prevail. 

Most notably, perhaps, Arsenal’s group adventures gave them an early feel for the Baku Olympic Stadium. They will return with happy memories, having cruised to a 3-0 victory against Qarabağ – after their training session the day before was interrupted by a wandering local cat. Clearly no bad omen, and certainly not for Sokratis Papastathopoulos, Emile Smith Rowe and Matteo Guendouzi, who all scored first goals for the club.

That game in Azerbaijan was also Emery’s first experimentation with a three-man defence. “He tries a lot of things and that’s very good for the team,” explained Papastathopoulos. Nevertheless, the next glimpse of an Arsenal back three in Europe brought a far different result, as the Gunners succumbed 1-0 away to a BATE side on their winter break in the round of 32.

Compounding the damage, Arsenal lost Alexandre Lacazette to a red card, but they bounced back 3-0 at home, Papastathopoulos and Shkodran Mustafi heading in after an early own goal. They would need those same powers of recovery again in the round of 16. French side Rennes were always going to pose a stiffer challenge, and Arsenal made their task even more complicated when Papastathopoulos saw red in the first-half of a 3-1 reverse in Brittany. 

“We need the place to be rocking,” announced Koscielny before the north London return – potentially the last ever game for the retiring Čech, second choice behind Bernd Leno in the Premier League. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang got the crowd going with an early goal, and the pacy forward crossed for Ainsley Maitland-Niles to nod in before capping the comeback himself. Emery liked what he had seen. The Gunners had flourished with a 3-4-1-2 formation, both Aubameyang and Lacazette featuring in a starting line-up for the first time in Europe – and the formula stuck. The result? Four straight victories, though it was Aaron Ramsey, in his final season before joining Juventus, who got the ball rolling in the 2-0 home win against Napoli.

Shaky on the road domestically, the Gunners then showed impressive maturity in Italy. Lacazette’s free-kick sealed a 1-0 win and a place in the last four, which meant a reunion for Emery with old club Valencia. Once again, his team were imperious, Lacazette scoring twice and Aubameyang pouncing late after Los Blanquinegros took the lead – the tenth match over the last two seasons in which both strikers had registered.

The 11th followed a week later at Mestalla. A year on from their heartbreak in Madrid, Arsenal were back on Spanish soil. There was to be no repeat. Valencia again fashioned an early advantage, but Aubameyang’s first hat-trick for the club ultimately sapped their resistance in a 4-2 win. Arsenal had flexed their muscles, banishing the pain of Wenger’s European swansong.

 

Baku, and Chelsea, now await – leaving Čech to dream of the fitting farewell. “It’s a perfect way to finish my career,” said the veteran. “A final against my old team.” With Emery returning to another showpiece, and a UEFA Champions League place at stake, the Gunners hope to provide a sparkling send-off.

ROAD TO BAKU

Group E

Arsenal

Sporting CP

Vorskla Poltava

Qarabag

W

5

4

1

1

D

1

1

0

0

L

0

1

5

5

F

12

13

4

2

A

2

3

13

13

Pts

16

13

3

3

P

6

6

6

6

Arsenal

Qarabag

Sporting CP

Arsenal

Vorskla

Arsenal

4-2

0-3

0-1

0-0

0-3

1-0

Vorskla

Arsenal

Arsenal

Sporting CP

Arsenal

Qarabag

ROUND OF 32

BATE Borisov

Arsenal

1-0

3-0

Arsenal

BATE Borisov

Arsenal win 3-1 on aggregate

ROUND OF 16

Rennes

Arsenal

3-1

3-0

Arsenal

Rennes

Arsenal win 4-3 on aggregate

QUARTER-FINALS

Arsenal

Napoli

2-0

0-1

Napoli

Arsenal

Arsenal win 3-0 on aggregate

SEMI-FINALS

Arsenal

Valencia

3-1

2-4

Valencia

Arsenal

Arsenal win 7-3 on aggregate

PARTNERSHIP

PERFECT

Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette have spearheaded Arsenal’s Europa League challenge

Ask any Arsenal fan for their ideal first XI at the start of this season, and two names would have cropped up in almost every selection: Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette. The forward duo started just three times together in Arsène Wenger’s final season, and Unai Emery also needed a little convincing at the start of his reign – but both have been UEFA Europa League fixtures over the last five matches.

Emery’s reward? Goals. Ten of the club’s last 13 in the competition, to be precise. “It’s a great partnership,” says Aubameyang. "Of course, the coach decides who plays and

"We are both really focused on playing for the team and giving our best"

whether we play together or not, and we have to accept that; that’s normal. But I think we are both really focused on playing for the team and giving our best.”

Both have been decisive in Arsenal’s front line, with either Mesut Özil or Aaron Ramsey tucked in behind, and their understanding has been bolstered by their friendship away from the action. “It’s been one year and a half that we’ve played together,” says Lacazette. “I knew Auba before and we talk a lot, not only about football. When you like someone, you talk a lot and of course on the pitch it’s easier.”

The sight of the two players coordinating their goal celebrations has become a regular occurrence – and a favourite among the fans who suspected they could blossom together. It likewise underlines their mutual respect, and Lacazette insists there is no rivalry between them when it comes to goal tallies: “Of course not. He can score ten more goals than me and it’s OK.”

Aubameyang does indeed lead the way, both domestically and in Europe. The former Borussia Dortmund striker took his UEFA Europa League total to eight with his hat-trick away to Valencia – only the second treble in the semi-finals of the revamped competition, with Radamel Falcao having struck four for Porto against Villarreal in 2011.

“He was unbelievable tonight,” said Lacazette, who scored his fifth of the campaign at Mestalla. It was his assist for Aubameyang’s first, however, that perhaps best showcased their mutual strengths, the Frenchman battling to win a header before ‘Auba’ used his pace, power and finishing acumen to fire past Neto. “We’ve talked a lot about our relationship and it’s a pleasure to play with him,” added Aubameyang. A pleasure, too, for the watching Arsenal faithful.

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