Serial Europa League winner Unai Emery welcomes old foes Arsenal to the Estadio de la Ceramica for the first leg of Villarreal’s Europa League semi-final clash on Thursday.
The Yellow Submarine defeated Dinamo Zagreb 3-1 on aggregate to advance to the final four, whereas the Gunners swept aside Slavia Prague 5-1 over two legs.
For all of his continental silverware achieved with Sevilla, Emery could not replicate his spate of successes while in the Arsenal dugout, as the Spaniard oversaw a 4-1 defeat to Chelsea in the 2018-19 Europa League final before his ill-fated stint came to an end.
However, the former Arsenal and Paris Saint-Germain boss has reinvigorated his managerial career with Villarreal, who have won 11 of their 12 Europa League games this season so far, including a perfect record of six wins from their six home games.
Villarreal have also managed to find the back of the net at least twice in all six of those continental triumphs and ended the Dinamo Zagreb journey in the quarter-finals, but they welcome Arsenal to Spain on the back of two successive league defeats to lowly Alaves and title-chasing Barcelona.
A red card to Manu Trigueros did not help matters against the Blaugrana, but the damage had been done by that point as Antoine Griezmann’s brace cancelled out Samuel Chukwueze’s opener, and that defeat condemned Villarreal to their third loss in five across all competitions.
Despite a downturn in league form, Emery has unsurprisingly masterminded a stellar run on the European stage as Villarreal bid to claim a first ever Europa League crown, but the last time they made an appearance in the semi-finals was back in the 2015-16 season, when another English side in Liverpool sent them packing.
From a calamitous European Super League fallout, #KroenkeOut protests and a laughable home defeat at the hands of Everton, Mikel Arteta could have hardly envisaged a more challenging week in the Emirates hotseat.
In a tale as old as time, the Gunners huffed and puffed against Everton but just could not put the ball in the back of the net, until Bernd Leno allowed Richarlison’s cross to deflect in through his legs as Arsenal failed to win at home for the fifth game in a row.
With any hopes of European qualification via their league position now hanging by the thinnest of threads, Arteta is expected to prioritise continental glory lest they run the risk of a season without European football, and the financial hit that comes with it.
However, the Gunners were simply unplayable in Prague as they stormed to a 4-0 success after another disappointing first leg at home, and they travel to Villarreal on a seven-game unbeaten streak away from home in all competitions – scoring at least three goals in their last four on the road.
Arsenal are also unbeaten in four meetings with Villarreal since 2005 – winning two and drawing two against the La Liga powerhouses – although those two stalemates both came on Villarreal’s turf, and they had to rely on a Jens Lehmann penalty save from Juan Roman Riquelme’s effort in the semi-finals of the 2005-06 Champions League.