Villarreal are on the verge of their first major trophy after a goalless draw with Arsenal sealed a 2-1 aggregate win and set up a Europa League final against Manchester United. (More Football News)
Beaten in both of their previous appearances in the Europa League semi-finals, Villarreal finally came good under three-time winner of the competition Unai Emery, who guided Arsenal to the final in 2019.
The Gunners lost to Chelsea two years ago and were denied the chance to tee up another all-English final as their former boss managed to see out the result.
It was not for a lack of trying, with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang hitting the post twice, though Mikel Arteta's team ultimately fell short at the penultimate hurdle.
#UEL | 0-0 | 90' | FINAL Y...
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Having finished the first leg on the ascendancy, Arsenal failed to pick up where they left off, and it took a Dani Parejo free-kick looping just over Bernd Leno's crossbar to spark them into life.
Aubameyang missed a late chance last week, and he was inches away from opening the scoring when his right-footed half-volley clipped the upright.
Villarreal suffered a blow moments later – Samuel Chukwueze having to be taken off on a stretcher after going down innocuously – with Geronimo Rulli almost spilling an Aubameyang shot over the line soon after.
Having failed to score in the first half for a sixth straight home game, Arsenal wasted no time in getting on the front foot after the break – Nicolas Pepe firing just wide.
Emile Smith Rowe went similarly close following another Rulli mistake, though Arsenal played their way into trouble at the other end and were fortunate Gerard Moreno's effort lacked power.
Aubameyang seemed all set to put Arsenal ahead on away goals when he leapt to meet Pepe's cross, only for his header to bounce agonisingly back off the post as – despite some more nervy goalkeeping from Rulli – Villarreal held firm to book their place in Gdansk.
What does it mean? Europa League specialist Emery at it again
If there is one thing Emery guarantees potential employers, it is seemingly success – or a very good chance of it – in UEFA's second-tier club competition – and he has now taken Villarreal into their first major final.
He has now reached the final five times, losing on only one of those previous four occasions, when Arsenal were convincingly beaten by Chelsea in Azerbaijan.
For the Gunners and Arteta, their season is now relying on a charge for European qualification via the league. They are not mathematically out of the equation by any means, but with only four games remaining, it looks highly unlikely. It means next year could be a first campaign without European competition for 25 years.
Parejo and Coquelin control it
Arsenal may have had more possession (55.8 per cent), but they only registered two attempts on target – not counting those which hit the post from Aubameyang.
Key to Villarreal's game management was the excellence and composure of Dani Parejo and former Gunner Francis Coquelin in midfield.
Parejo had 70 touches, completing 48 of his 54 attempted passes, while Coquelin went into a joint team-high 14 duels winning 57.1 per cent of them.
Partey fails to turn up
Arsenal signed Thomas Partey at the peak of his powers, but it has been a difficult first campaign in English football for the ex-Atletico Madrid powerhouse.
Thursday's performance rather summed his season up. He lost possession 15 times – only Pepe, Kieran Tierney and Bukayo Saka among his team-mates gave it away on more occasions – and was sluggish with the ball at his feet, often conceding it in dangerous areas, although he did record more passes (32) in Villarreal's half than any other Arsenal player.
Key Opta Facts
- Villarreal have reached the final of a major European competition for the very first time, having been eliminated from each of their previous four semi-finals – UEFA Cup/Europa League in 2003-04, 2010-11, 2015-16 and the Champions League 2005-06.
- Having progressed from each of their first six semi-finals in major European competition, Arsenal have been eliminated from three of their four appearances at this stage in Europe since (2008-09 Champions League, 2017-18 & 2020-21 Europa League).
- Since the competition’s rebranding in 2009-10, Emery has reached the final of the Europa League on more occasions than any other manager.
- Arsenal have failed to reach the final of a major European/domestic cup competition for the first time since 2015-16 (reaching the 2016-17 FA Cup, 2017-18 League Cup, 2018-19 Europa League & 2019-20 FA Cup finals since).
- This was Villarreal's first goalless draw in Europe in 21 matches, since a stalemate against Rangers in November 2018.
Arsenal host relegation-threatened West Brom in the Premier League on Sunday, while Villarreal face Celta Vigo in LaLiga.