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Pepe gives Arsenal hope of reaching final

Raul Albiol scores Villarreal's second goal
Albiol’s goal helped give Villarreal their first ever win over Arsenal

Nicolas Pepe’s second-half penalty gave Arsenal renewed hope of reaching the Europa League final despite a semi-final first-leg loss at Villarreal as both sides finished with 10 men.

With the Gunners trailing 2-0 and a man down following Dani Ceballos’ sending off, Pepe stepped up and fired home a precious away goal from the spot after Bukayo Saka had been tripped in the box.

It means Mikel Arteta’s side go into next Thursday’s second leg with genuine hope of reaching a second Europa League final in three seasons and with the potential of qualifying for next season’s Champions League.

They appeared to be sinking without trace when Manu Trigueros fired in an early low, angled drive for the home side before Raul Albiol slammed home at the back post following Gerard Moreno’s flick-on from a corner.

Ceballos’ red card with 30 minutes left, courtesy of a second booking for standing on the boot of Daniel Parejo, looked to have sealed their fate.

But Bernd Leno produced two good saves to keep the home side at bay before Pepe – playing as a false nine – had his say.

Villarreal may still have fancied their chances of scoring again, but this was hampered when they too were reduced to 10 men, as Etienne Capoue shown a second yellow for a late tackle on Saka.

The ‘Yellow Submarine’, managed by ex-Gunners Unai Emery, will go into the second leg on top, but facing the prospect that just one unanswered concession will send them out.

Arsenal down but not out

Emery is all too familiar with the regular inquests that greet Arsenal’s failures on the pitch from his 18 months in charge of the club as successor to Arsene Wenger.

It was the heavy defeat to Chelsea in the final of this competition in 2019 that was the beginning of the end for his largely disappointing stint as boss.

It felt like another inquest was incoming, this time for Arteta, with the Gunners trailing 2-0 after a half in which they were out-thought and out-classed, with their only fleeting positive moment a penalty overturned by VAr for handball against Pepe in the build-up.

Defeat in this tie would likely prompt a new level of soul-searching at the club, who currently sit 10th in the Premier League and need to triumph in this competition to extend their record of appearing in continental competition to 26 successive seasons.

The Gunners’ current boss has built a more robust, patient side than his predecessor, but they badly let themselves down with two defensive lapses to hand the initiative to their opponent.

Samuel Chukwueze was allowed to carry the ball too far into the box to tee up the first goal for Trigueros after just five minutes. Even more criminal was the lack of marking that allowed Moreno to flick the ball on for Albiol to score the second.

Chasing that crucial away goal, they could ill-afford Ceballos’ disciplinary lapse, and it almost proved terminal to their hopes with Moreno twice seeing efforts saved by Leno in the aftermath.

To the credit of Arteta and his players, though, they continued to push for a foothold and found it when Saka went down in the box. The amount of contact from Trigueros’ boot is up for debate, although VAR backed up the on-field official.

It could have been even better for the Gunners, but substitute Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang was denied by a fine save from Geronimo Rulli, leaving Pepe’s goal as their sole reward.

Pepe has not always stood out as the man for the big occasion during his time at Arsenal, but with a goal in each of his last three Europa League games and six in total in this season’s competition, he is leading from the front in this campaign.

His strike on Thursday could well be the most important of the lot – a goal in times of adversity that could well allow Arsenal to salvage something from the season.

‘Confident we have a chance to win’

Arsenal boss Mikel Arteta on BT Sport: “We didn’t want to come here and lose but after the way the game developed, you have to take the result. If you have to lose it is probably the best result we could have.

“Two different halves. We started to be us, in the first half there were so many moments we weren’t.

“We started to chase and were not precise with the ball, didn’t have enough control. We didn’t have enough threat or desire to attack the box, in the second half it was completely different.

“We are very used to that (Bukayo Saka playing well) this season, but it tells us we need to do much more as we cannot always rely on him. Bernd Leno was very good, at 2-0, the chance with Gerard Moreno, he saved us.

“I am confident we have a chance to win.”

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