Europa League Semi-Finals First Leg
Arsenal 3 Valencia 1
Arsenal rallied superbly from a goal down to take a precious two goal lead to Spain for the second leg of their Europa League semi-final.
They may yet regret the sloppy opening 15 minutes when they gifted Valencia a potentially vital away goal and appeared to be on the verge of unravelling, but a crucial injury-time volley from Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang has put them in the driving seat.
Two goals from Alexandre Lacazette flipped the game on its head during a breathless first-half – his first coming after he raced up to take delivery of a return pass from Aubameyang on a counter-attack – helped in no small measure by a rush of blood from keeper Neto, who deserted his post in a forlorn attempt to get at the ball.
And the Valencia keeper was also found wanting when he could only palm a Lacazette header onto a post, which was not enough to prevent it creeping over the line.
The supplier of the key pass was Granit Xhaka, who also set up another great opportunity for Aubameyang before he half was out – only for the Gabon striker to crash a volley into the turf and over the bar.
At least he would make amends in the final minute with a delicious volley after a glorious floated cross by Sead Kolasinac from the left.
Lacazette passed up at least two great chances to claim a hat-trick and also thundered another late shot into the palms of Neto and the fans exiting the Emirates would surely have been thinking about those near-misses a lot more had Aubemeyang not buried the late chance which provided a truer reflection of the Gunners’ overall superiority.
After the most sobering of weeks for English clubs in the Champions League, it looked for all the world as if another Premier League side might be in for a world of hurt as Valencia grabbed their early lead.
The manner of it was particularly galling too – with Arsenal unable to cope with a corner launched to the far post and headed back across goal by Rodrigo for Mouctar Diakhaby to rise up and nod over the line from no distance.
That was after 11 minutes and already the Gunners had been wobbly at the back, allowing Rodrigo to flash a low cross into the danger zone which Ezequiel Garay ought not to have blazed over from three yards.
Only four minutes after the Spanish side’s opener, the pain might have cut deeper as Ashley Maitland-Niles, otherwise excellent for the Gunners with his pace down the right going forward, made a hash of a cushioned header back to Petr Cech after the keeper had parried a shot from Valencia skipper Daniel Parejo.
The ball died in front of him and it was lucky that Goncalo Guedes spurned the apparent gift by scooping the ball over.
Somehow though, Arsenal found their feet amongst the mayhem and began to take the game to their opponents – and thanks to some eccentric goalkeeping from Neto, they found themselves 2-1 up by the 26th minute.
Arsenal always looked the likelier team to score after the break but there was one anxious moment when sub Kevin Gameiro found himself in space with the goal seemingly at his mercy. Except the old warehorse Cech – possibly making his final appearance at the Emirates – flung himself in the way to block with his legs. That too could turn out to be a crucial moment in the tie.
This time last year, Arsenal went to Spain and found their road to the final blocked by an uncompromising Atletico Madrid. There is still much work to be done, but this year, at least, Valencia appear to look far less ominous.
Line-up: Cech – Mustafi, Sokratis, Koscielny (Monreal 82), Kolasinac – Guendouzi (Torreira 58), Xhaka, – Maitland-Niles, Ozil (Mkhitaryan 75), Aubameyang - Lacazette. Subs not used: Leno, Elneny, Iwobi, Nketiah.