Fiery front­line bails out the nervy de­fence

Daily Mail - - Europa League - By MATT BARLOW

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.

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