Fiery frontline bails out the nervy defence
When Arsenal last emerged triumphant from a european campaign, it was all about their miserly defence and thirst for a clean sheet.
It will be 25 years ago tomorrow since that night in Copenhagen when Alan Smith stunned Parma and George Graham’s defensive solidity did the rest.
Graham’s team conceded just three goals in nine games on the way to european Cup-Winners’ Cup glory in 1994, a journey which ground along to a chorus of ‘One-nil to the Arsenal’.
Unai emery’s team have been finding it hard to make it through one game without leaking three and in the first half last night the emirates shook with nerves and gasped awaiting individual errors.
They roared their approval as Shkodran Mustafi leathered an old-school clearance before half- time and cheered for Sokratis when he found the top tier of the stands.
All of which eats at confidence and amplifies the problem, with Mustafi and Sokratis so desperate to help, they charge into tackles they don’t need to make. Fortunately, there are enough goals at the sharp end of this team to compensate and a manager who knows what it takes to win the europa League.
Alexandre Lacazette spun the tie on its head before the interval and Pierre-emerick Aubameyang added a valuable third late on. Baku beckons if Arsenal can keep Valencia at bay in the Mestalla next week.
emery opted for three centre halves, two wing backs and restored Petr Cech. Soon-to-retire Cech won this competition with Chelsea six years ago and it would be a magnificent
final chapter to end his playing career with his gloves on the trophy again, perhaps against his former club.
Dreaming is a dangerous business, however, when protected by this defensive unit. Valencia might have settled this semi-final inside 15 minutes as Arsenal defended set-pieces with the same old frailties.
A free-kick pulled wide by Valencia was whipped low across goal and somehow skied, then another fired wide when Cech parried and Ainsley Maitland-niles was caught out.
There was no surprise when Mouctar Diakhaby opened the scoring from a deep corner headed back across goal by Rodrigo. Granit Xhaka and Lacazette were unable to make a challenge as Diakhaby nodded in.
Arsenal must have discussed keeping it tight and not conceding an away goal, such a precious commodity with all its psychological menace in these two-legged ties.
They are seasoned european competitors, yet play with the reckless freedom of schoolboys.
Perhaps we should not complain. The chaos makes for marvellous entertainment and in Lacazette and Aubameyang, Arsenal had the pace and movement to hurt Valencia.
Aubameyang’s late goal will soothe anxieties. A two-goal cushion really ought to be enough for Arsenal to go one stage further than last year.
Perhaps this is the year when they hit back, when they triumph again in europe. Perhaps this time it will hinge on their potent strike force and a desire to take risks.