LONDON: Arsenal rely on Europa League success to save desolate season, but face ex-manager Unai Emery (pix) with one point to prove in Thursday’s semi-final first leg against Villarreal.
Sitting 10th in the Premier League, the Gunners are on course for their worst league result since 1995.
But Mikel Arteta’s men are also just three games away from the club’s third European trophy and a much-needed ticket to return to the Champions League for the first time in five seasons.
All is not well in the UAE on or off the pitch. Ahead of Friday’s 1-0 loss to Everton, thousands of fans protested against Arsenal owner Stan Kroenke, calling on the US billionaire to sell the club after his role in a collapsed European Super League.
Arsenal were one of 12 breakaway clubs to seek assurance of top-level European football every season without facing the risks of having to qualify.
It’s easy to see why Kroenke sought out the guaranteed income the Super League would provide.
For 19 seasons between 1998/99 and 2016/17, Londoners never failed to qualify for the Champions League. Now they are set to finish outside the Premier League top four for a fifth consecutive year.
This decline began before Emery’s 18-month period between May 2018 and November 2019.
The Spaniard missed the top four by a point and advanced to the Europa League final in his only full season at the helm, but was sacked four months after starting his second.
‘It ended in undesirable circumstances,’ Emery said uefa.com before the tie.
“I want to win for myself and for Villarreal. (Two years ago) I was defending Arsenal’s red colors in this final against Chelsea, now I feel that affinity for Villarreal’s yellow. I have this competitive instinct, this responsibility that I owe to the club and to everyone I represent with my decisions. “
A three-time Europa League winner during his time in Seville, the 49-year-old has won 28 of the 31 knockout games in the competition through spells at four different clubs.
Revenge is also on Villarreal’s mind for those with a much longer connection to the club than Emery.
A very first major trophy is also the Spanish team’s only road to next season’s Champions League.
The Champions League semi-final against Arsenal was arguably the closest to the silverware, when Jens Lehmann’s stoppage at Juan Roman Riquelme’s last-minute penalty in 2005/06 prevented the draw from ending. qualify in extratime.
“The two clubs have their own history between them,” added Emery. “It will be a great competition, although I coached there recently.”
In the other semi-final, Manchester United boss Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is aiming for a final in the fifth time since taking the lead of the Red Devils against Roma.
Under the Norwegian, the English giants have fallen twice in the last four games of the League Cup and in the semi-finals of the Europa League and FA Cup last season.
While United are reasonably assured of a top-four spot in the Premier League, but too far from Manchester City to mount a title challenge, ending a four-year drought is the main prize offered to Solskjaer’s men this season.
“It looks like a real European tie because Roma are a club with a lot of history,” Solskjaer said in the draw.
Like Arsenal and Villarreal, the motivation of the Italians is even greater, seventh in Serie A.
The victory in next month’s final in Gdansk is the best shot in European football next season for Paulo Fonseca’s men. – AFP