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. 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. 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.