The UEFA Europa League gets back underway on Thursday, as Arsenal lock horns with Villarreal at Estadio de la Ceramica.
Mikel Arteta will be under the microscope once again when Arsenal travel to Estadio de la Ceramica on Thursday, for the first leg of the UEFA Europa League semi-final.
The Gunners are currently going through a tough period, especially following their European Super League announcement, which drew flak from their own fans, many of whom also revolved outside the Emirates. They have also miserably underperformed in the Premier League this season, which was evident in the defeat to Everton last week.
Following early elimination from the FA Cup and with no real hopes of pushing for a top six finish in the league, Europa League remains the only hope for Arsenal fans in their bid to qualify for European football next season. It essentially means this will be a must-win encounter, not just for the club but also for Arteta, whose future remains uncertain following poor performances by his side.
Villarreal will be hoping to inflict further misery on the north London giants, with their head coach Unai Emery hoping to settle the scores after a turbulent end to his time at the Emirates.
The Spanish giants, though, are going through a tough time of their own, having slipped to three defeats in their last five matches – a run of result that has allowed Real Sociedad and Real Betis to take the lead in the race of the top six in La Liga.
Both the sides, though, performed quite well in the previous round, with Villarreal holding their own against Dinamo Zagreb while Arsenal powered their way through Slavia Praha. And here, at The Hard Tackle, we will run the rule over these two teams ahead of their blockbuster encounter in the Europa League semi-final this midweek.
Team News & Tactics
Unai Emery is not missing too many key players heading into this encounter, with Vicente Iborra being the only notable absentee. It will be interesting to how the Villarreal coach approaches this game, as his team generally likes to control possession.
But in Arsenal, they will be dealt with a strong opponent, potentially forcing Emery to stick with the generic 4-4-2. It is also a home leg, so the Spanish outfit needs to remain extra careful defensively, with the likes of Pau Torres, Raul Albiol and the two full-backs in Juan Foyth and Alfonso Pedraza hoping to provide the cover for goalkeeper Sergio Asenjo.
Midfield will be another important sector, as Villarreal simply cannot allow Arsenal to dictate the tempo. As such, the onus will be on Dani Parejo and Etienne Capoue to offer the solidity in the middle of the park and to disrupt the flow of the opposition, though Parejo could play a bigger role in the technical side of the game.
Speaking of which, Villarreal are set to rely heavily on their star player, Samuel Chukuwuze, to offer the pace and dynamism on the flanks, making him one of their main sources of creativity alongside fellow winger Manu Trigueros.
And finally, the Villarreal attack should be spearheaded by the rather productive offensive combination of Gerard Moreno and Paco Alcacer, though it is only Moreno who has found himself among the goals this season.
Probable Lineup (4-4-2): Asenjo; Foyth, Albiol, Torres, Pedraza; Chukwueze, Capoue, Parejo, Trigueros; Moreno, Alcacer
Things are a bit muddled for Arsenal, who are missing their premier left-back in Kieran Tierney as well as key goalscorer Alexandre Lacazette. Even Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang is a doubt despite recovering from malaria.
On top of that, Arteta is set to face a selection dilemma even from the available ones. especially in the defensive department. Bernd Leno, for one, has performed poorly in between the sticks, with Mat Ryan, who is set to make his move to the Emirates permanent, being available as an alternative.
Although we expect the German to retain his place in the starting eleven, the same cannot be said for Pablo Mari and Calum Chambers. They could make way for Gabriel Magalhaes and Hector Bellerin – as part of Arteta’s usual rotation policy for the Europa League matches.
Another tough decision Arteta has to make, is in the left-back position. Granit Xhaka has done well deputising for the injured Tierney, but Cedric Soares appears to be a more natural fit for that role. However, it is fair to point out that Portuguese is far more comfortable on the right-hand side, so we expecting Xhaka to continue in the makeshift full-back role this midweek.
It should nicely pave the way for Arteta to retain the in-form Dani Ceballos in the double pivot alongside Thomas Partey. These two, with their technical prowess and experience of facing Spanish opponents, could be key in dictating the game from the middle of the park as well as recycling possession.
Moving forward, Arsenal are likely to welcome Martin Odegaard back to the starting eleven. The Norwegian playmaker should renew his partnership with Bukayo Saka and Nicolas Pepe, forming the creative trifecta that will hope to aid Eddie Nketiah, who is likely to start, with Aubameyang likely to be used from the bench.
Probable Lineup (4-2-3-1): Leno; Bellerin, Holding, Gabriel, Xhaka; Partey, Ceballos; Saka, Odegaard, Pepe; Nketiah
- Villarreal and Arsenal will play for the fifth time in European competition, with the previous four games taking place in the UEFA Champions League (semi-finals in 2005/06 and quarterfinals in 2008/09) – Villarreal are yet to beat the Gunners.
- Arsenal are yet to beat Villarreal away from home, drawing on both previous visits (2006 and 2009). Their one goal in those games was an Emmanuel Adebayor overhead kick assisted by Cesc Fabregas, while Roberts Pires appeared as a substitute for the hosts.
- This is the first European semifinal tie that Villarreal will contest since losing 1-3 on aggregate to Liverpool at the same stage of this competition in 2015/16; in fact, they have been eliminated from all four of their major European semi-final ties.
- Arsenal have reached the semi-finals of European competition for the tenth time (including Fairs Cup), with the Gunners getting to the last four in three of their four Europa League campaigns.
- Arsenal have only lost one of their previous nine European semifinal first legs (W5 D3), though it was the last time the first leg was an away game, against Manchester United in the UEFA Champions League in 2008/09 (0-1).
Player to Watch
Nicolas Pepe might turn out to be the most important element for Arsenal in this encounter – solely due to his impressive record in this season’s Europa League.
Though largely considered as a flop since his big-money move to the Emirates in 2019, Pepe has been involved in a total of nine goals in just 11 Europa League matches this season. He has starred in almost every match for Arsenal, and his pace and trickery could be useful once again, as the Gunners hope to outclass Villarreal this midweek.
Pepe himself will be hoping to prove his credentials against Unai Emery, who was the one to bring the Ivorian to Arsenal in the first place, making him the one player to keep an eye on, in this blockbuster encounter.
Villarreal 1-1 Arsenal
This is a difficult game to predict for multiple reasons. Momentum clearly favours Villarreal, but it is Arsenal who have a better team and have performed much better in the Europa League.
Considering the style of play of these two teams, we expect this game to turn into a cagey affair, particularly in the middle of the park. The outcome could thus depend heavily on certain key moments, and at the end of the day, we are expecting the Gunners to come away with the advantage by securing a 1-1 draw in this away leg.