Arsenal teeter on European tightrope in high-stakes Unai Emery reunion

In the wake of a turbulent week in the club’s history, the Gunners must go all the way in the Europa League to avoid missing out on Europe for the first time this century.

By Tim Williams Published: 29 April 2021 - 11.11am

Turmoil. Crisis. Fractured. Three words that have characterised a tumultuous first full season for Mikel Arteta at Arsenal.

From presiding over the club’s worst start to a top-flight season since 1974/75 to negotiating the fallout from the swift demise of the reviled European Super League, the Spaniard has experienced the full gamut of emotions in the embryonic stages of his managerial career.

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Supporters gathered en masse outside Emirates Stadium before Arsenal’s latest defeat, against Everton last Friday, to protest against owner Stan Kroenke’s role in the failed breakaway league in a demonstration of the palpable anger that has been bubbling in over a decade of failed ownership.

Arsenal legends Thierry Henry, Dennis Bergkamp and Patrick Vieira have reportedly joined Spotify founder and billionaire Daniel Ek’s bid to buy the club, but Kroenke has reaffirmed that he has no intention to sell in a setback for the club’s mobilised supporters.

Commenting on the mooted takeover bid, Arteta responded: “I cannot control the speculation and what is going on. What I like to know and talk about is the reality.

“We have owners that are really committed and want a successful team on the pitch, and will do everything they can to achieve that.”

Unfortunately for Arteta, the outlook isn’t much brighter on the pitch. The Gunners are languishing in 10th position in the Premier League table and are unlikely to qualify for Europe next season through league position.

The loss to Everton, courtesy of an egregious error from goalkeeper Bernd Leno, was their seventh at the Emirates this season. They have now tasted defeat on home soil in the league more times this season than any other since 1992/93.

The last time they missed out on European football altogether was the 1995/96 campaign and their chances of qualifying for next season’s Champions League now rely on winning this year’s Europa League.

Their hopes are teetering on a tightrope ahead of a high-stakes reunion with Unai Emery who has earned a reputation as a Europa League specialist after winning the competition for three years in a row with Sevilla between 2014 and 2016.

Now in charge at Villarreal, 17 months after he was dismissed at Arsenal, he has masterminded yet another impressive European run to the last four with a prodigiously-talented side tailored to knockout formats.

‘The Yellow Submarine’ raced through the knockout stages with relative ease, defeating Salzburg 4-1, Dynamo Kyiv 4-0 and Dinamo Zagreb 3-1 on aggregate to set up the must-watch clash with Arsenal.

1995/96
The last time Arsenal weren't involved in European competition

Their La Liga form has dipped in recent weeks, but last season’s beaten quarter-finalists have looked liberated in Europe this term and will be determined to avenge an agonising defeat to the Londoners in the 2006 Champions League semi-final.

Arsenal survived a siege on their goal in eastern Spain and had Jens Lehmann to thank for saving Juan Roman Riquelme’s last-minute penalty on a famous night in the club’s history, reaching the final at Villarreal’s expense.

Three years later the clubs met again in the Champions League, with The Gunners securing an altogether more routine 4-1 aggregate victory.

This time around, with the dangerous forward pair of Gerard Moreno and Paco Alcacer set to lead the line and gifted technician Dani Parejo pulling the strings, they are ready to demonstrate their prowess on the European stage once more.

If revenge is on the mind at El Madrigal, Emery has called for cool heads ahead of Thursday’s first leg.

“I’m used to meeting former teams so playing Arsenal, where I coached, is nothing new. We'll approach it with humility, pride and responsibility,” he said. 

“This is a chance to establish Villarreal on the top rung of European football. The key thing is to enjoy what we’ve done so far and savour the opportunity to break our record of reaching semi-finals but not going on to European finals.”

Arsenal have been boosted by the news that Alexandre Lacazette, Kieran Tierney and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang are all in contention to feature, but they are firmly in last chance saloon.

Like their Spanish counterparts, they have found life much more comfortable on the continent this season and they delivered arguably their best display of the season against Slavia Prague to reach the last four.

On a night where winning was all that mattered in the Czech capital, after a 1-1 first-leg draw, the 2019 finalists produced a coming-of-age performance to demolish their obdurate opponents 4-0.

They scored three goals in the opening 24 minutes and had another ruled out by the video assistant referee against the side responsible for eliminating Leicester City and Rangers en route to the quarter-finals.

True to form, Arteta’s men followed up a masterful performance on the road with a fortunate draw against lowly Fulham at home in the league.

With all their eggs ensconced in the Europa League basket, Arteta is acutely aware of the sanctity of the situation.

“It will be really tough and Unai Emery is probably the most successful manager in this competition,” he said.

“I spoke with him [Emery] before I took the Arsenal job, he was really helpful, very experienced and successful manager. I think there is no doubt that he’s got the tools and knowledge to manage at the top level.”

After a turbulent week in the club’s history, Arteta knows the most powerful unifier would be to guide Arsenal to Europa League glory.

Will they move one step closer to the Gdansk showpiece with a statement win in Villarreal? Find out exclusively on BT Sport 3 HD from 7.15pm tonight.