A brace from Alexandre Lacazette and a late Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang volley handed us a 3-1 win over Valencia in the first leg of our Europa League semi-final on Thursday night.
But what did we learn from our outing at Emirates Stadium? Read on to find out...
A RAPID RESPONSE
Slow starts and rapid responses were the theme of the early months of the season, and the trend returned here - squeezed into 25 first-half minutes. Valencia got their tactics right early on, the energetic Diakhaby shielding a defensive line that’s been hard to breach in La Liga and gave us very little room to manoeuvre. The visitors balanced that resolve with an attacking threat and they could have led even before Diakhaby nodded in from close range. But it all changed once Lacazette and Aubameyang got to work. The first goal was the perfect manifestation of their understanding, Auba not even looking up to trace the route of Laca’s through-ball, just anticipating it and concentrating on getting there ahead of his marker. He returned the favour to lay Laca’s first goal on a plate - and we never looked back.
LACA BOSS (AGAIN)
Laca has delivered some stellar performances this season, but it’s hard to recall one better than this. The vision to send Auba through to set up our equaliser… the hunger to track his strike partner and get into position to apply the finish… the eye for space inside the box that freed him up to head our second goal… Laca’s highlights reel was mightily impressive. And it all came with the tenacity and work ethic that we’ve come to admire. Laca once again set the tone with his fierce pressing, his refusal to get knocked off the ball, his near-post defending from corners and his willingness to track back and make challenges in his own half. The one dud note was a squandered chance or two that could have completed his hat-trick - but Laca was still a worthy man of the match. Incredibly, this is the third consecutive year he’s scored in the Europa League semi-finals.
This was only our second win against Valencia in six attempts, and you have to go back to 2001 for the last time we beat the Spaniards. That was in the last eight of the Champions League, when a howitzer from Ray Parlour sparked wild celebrations at Highbury and secured a 2-1 win. On that occasion we couldn’t find a third goal - and Valencia nicked a 1-0 win in the second leg to knock us out on away goals. This year’s tie looked like following the same pattern until Aubameyang made our pressure count with a vital strike as the game ticked into stoppage time. It was Auba’s fifth Europa League goal at the Emirates this season - how significant will it prove in the Mestalla next Thursday?
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