PARIS: Unai Emery is relying on an old friend to salvage something from his first year at Arsenal.
Heading into the final weeks of a season of ups and downs, Arsenal was faced with two possible paths to qualifying for the Champions League: Via a top-four finish in the Premier League or through winning the Europa League.
Was it ever really in doubt which route best suited Emery? The Spaniard is the king of the Europa League, having won it for three straight years with Sevilla from 2014, so it is probably his natural inclination perhaps subconsciously to be lured by that competition.
Recent results suggest this is the case.
Since back-to-back wins over Napoli, the second best team in Italy, in the quarter-finals of the Europa League, Arsenal’s players have lost three straight games in the Premier League. They have conceded three goals in each of those three games, to Crystal Palace, Wolverhampton Wanderers and Leicester City, and remain in fifth place.
Valencia, Arsenal’s opponent in the semi-finals and a club Emery coached from 2008-12, should perhaps disregard Arsenal’s recent lapses on the domestic front, when the team’s shoddy defending revived memories of some of the sadder days in the latter years of Arsene Wenger’s long tenure at the club.
Arsenal’s home form should also be of concern to the Spanish team ahead of the first leg of the semi-finals at Emirates Stadium on Thursday. Before the 3-2 loss to Palace on April 21, Arsenal had won eight straight home games across all competitions and one of those was a 2-0 win over Napoli that ought to have been a wider margin of victory.
Lose in the semi-finals, however, and questions will start to be asked of Emery. He earned plenty of goodwill early in the season by leading Arsenal on a three-month, 22-game unbeaten run and showing a courageous attitude to selection, including dropping Mesut Ozil the club’s top earner and most high-profile player.
But the manner of some of Arsenal’s recent capitulations has been alarming, exposing the weaknesses in the team especially at center back and central midfield that were also around under Wenger. Former Valencia center back Shkodran Mustafi, in particular, has been a target of criticism from fans and pundits.
Valencia find themselves in a similar situation to Arsenal in looking at the Europa League to save a disappointing domestic season.
A shock 1-0 home defeat to Eibar on Saturday leaves Los Che sixth in La Liga and three points outside the top four with three games left.
Former Arsenal defender Gabriel Paulista will return to the Emirates on Thursday and wants to mark Valencia’s centenary year in style.
“I want to be in the history of Valencia,” the Brazilian told the club’s website. “It is the year of the centenary and in 100 years’ time I want people to remember that Gabriel Paulists won the Europa League with Valencia.”
Valencia are trying to return to a European final for the first time since 2004, when they won the UEFA Cup and then the Super Cup.
The other semi-final will see Chelsea visit Eintracht Frankfurt for yet another continental duel between English and German sides and those two teams also enter the first leg far from their best form and coming off setbacks in the closing stages of their long seasons.
Chelsea’s only wins in their last five games were the two in their quarter-final victory over Slavia Prague. Eintracht have just one win in their last five encounters.
Locked into a four-team battle for the Premier League’s final two automatic qualification for the Champions League alongside Arsenal, Chelsea know the Europa League offers another avenue with the winner earning a place in Europe’s premier club competition.
“The Europa League is a very important trophy for us to win as well, as we have been working hard for this since September,” Chelsea defender Cesar Azpilicueta said ahead of the trip to Frankfurt. “It’s in our hands but there is still work to do yet, but we have shown that we can compete with our two targets. The atmosphere in the dressing-room is very good, as always, and we are working hard to ensure we finish the season strongly.”
Eintracht-Chelsea is the fourth knock-out duel between English and German sides, and Premier League sides claimed an impressive treble of last 16 wins in the Champions League when Liverpool ousted Bayern Munich, Tottenham accounted for Borussia Dortmund and Manchester City beat Schalke 04.
Under new coach Adi Huetter, the Germans are having their best ever season in the Bundesliga where they are currently in fourth place and reached a first European semi-final for 39 years.
The 1980 UEFA Cup winners qualified for this season’s Europa League with a win over Bayern Munich in the German Cup final last May and won all their games in a group featuring Lazio and Marseille. Since then, they’ve eliminated Shakhtar Donetsk, Inter Milan and Benfica in the knockout stages.
“We’re the rank outsiders, but we’ve played well in this role in the Europa League up to now,” Frankfurt sporting director Bruno Huebner said. “We’ve grown with every challenge and believe in our chances.”
Published in Dawn, May 2nd, 2019