Madrid: Unai Emery won his big reunion with Arsenal but 2-1 could be a small reward for Villarreal, who failed to take advantage of Dani Ceballos’ expulsion in a frenzied first leg in the semi-final of the Europa League on Thursday.
Manu Trigueros and Raul Albiol gave Villarreal a dream start at La Ceramica and the tie seemed to slip away from Arsenal when Ceballos received a second yellow card early in the second half.
But Arsenal, at 10, rallied and scored an away goal when Nicolas Pepe converted a penalty kick in the 73rd minute, before Villarreal’s Etienne Capoue also saw red with 10 minutes left.
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang might have even snatched a late equalizer for the visitors, but Mikel Arteta will be delighted his side are not only in the game, but also in a good position, with an away goal to cut back to London next week.
For Villarreal a chance was missed but the header is always welcome and Emery will take comfort in the fact that they were the better team for the better part of an hour, even before Ceballos was sacked.
Emery said on Wednesday he would still have “a place in his heart” for Arsenal, despite a turbulent 18 months at the helm of the club before being sacked in 2019.
He might also look with little envy on his successor Arteta, who is now under pressure to win the Europa League and qualify for the Champions League, with Arsenal seated 10th in the Premier League table and far from the top four.
Villarreal took the lead in the fifth minute with a smooth movement from the back that Arteta would be proud of.
It started with goalkeeper Geronimo Rulli and ended with Samuel Chukwueze stepping into the box, the ball spilling over to Trigueros, who drove into the far corner.
It wasn’t even 30 minutes gone when Villarreal made two, this time from a simpler source as Dani Parejo’s corner was operated by Gerard Moreno and Albiol stuck a foot to the back post.
Emery brought in Francis Coquelin to add some protection, but the dynamics of the game changed just before the hour mark, when Ceballos came late to Parejo’s ankle to earn a second yellow card.
Moreno should have made three but Bernd Leno pushed his shot, then Arsenal received a lifeline with Bukayo Saka nibbling between Capua and Trigueros before falling. Pepe pierced the penalty in the middle and inside.
Villarreal’s lead was cut and then their power play was also gone as Capua came in late on Saka to see red, while injuring himself in the process.
Arsenal sensed an equalizer and Aubameyang, as a substitute, could have even found it when he slipped to the right of the box, but Rulli made the save.