A late Pierre-Emerick Abameyang strike put Arsenal in control of their Europa League semi-final against Valencia as they recovered from an awful start to win 3-1.
The Gunners were all at sea for much of the first half but rallied to take the game to their Spanish opponents and score three goals to give themselves a potentially crucial buffer in next week’s second leg.
It was a welcome upturn in performance for a Gunners side stung but a run of woeful league performances that has put paid to their top four hopes in the Premier League, but they certainly didn’t have it all their own way.
The first 15-20 minutes of the match were straight from the Leicester City playbook, as if the final whistle hadn’t blown at the King Power and we were still pissing aimlessly into the wind.
It wasn’t even as if we were away from home either. We were surrounded by all the comforts of the Emirates and yet we lacked control, discipline, tempo and impetus in a way that only normally happens on our travels.
We couldn’t string passes together, we didn’t have control of the midfield, and we certainly didn’t have control of our faculties at the back. Though that was less of a surprise than other aspects of the performance, it was still excruciating to see as toil defensively against a fairly average Valencia side.
The visitor’s opening goal was a particularly pathetic effort from a backline that must have 30 years combined experience of top level football. We almost stood and watched as two lollipop headers quite inexplicably ended up in the back of our net.
Frankly, we were lucky it was only the one goal we found ourselves behind by the end of the opening quarter.
Fortunately, however, Valencia’s back line proved every bit as inept as our own and the half’s two stand-out performers, Messers Aubameyang and Lacazette, provided the magic needed to drag us back into the match.
Two good goals showcased just how valuable the aforementioned pair are to the Gunners and put us back into some sort of comfort zone. Thereafter, the hosts settled down and started at last to look like the home team.
That measure of control increased in the second half as Valencia, seemingly content with the 2-1 scoreline, decided to drop 10 yards and cede possession. Doing so really allowed Unai Emery’s men to dominate the ball and they began to produce something like the football that has made them such a force at home this season.
At times it was tough to break down the massed ranks of the Spanish side but, even so, Lacazette was guilty of wasting two of three excellent chances that would have turned the tie in Arsenal’s favour.
Crucially, though, a third goal came late on through Aubameyang, who scuffed home at the back post when a pure strike would almost certainly have missed the target. It was smart running from substitute Henrikh Mhikitaryan that launched the attack, sheer persistence from Lacazette, and an excellent ball from Sead Kolasinac that finally broke the visitor’s long resistance.
The reaction of the players and the crowd to the third was huge and a sign of just how important it may turn out to be in the course of the tie.
It gives the Gunners the sort of advantage they tend to need as a minimum these days in order to have some confidence they can progress. It may all go up in smoke inside 10 minutes next week, but they have at the very least put themselves in a good position.
In the end, and given how the game started, it was encouraging at least to see more aggression and impetus in the second half as the Gunners shook themselves out of their torpor. Their control of the match was much more like how Emery would have envisaged it and the way Valencia tired and ran out of ideas will give them encouragement for next week too.