Arsenal travelled to Spain knowing that despite an awful domestic campaign, they stood just three games away from a European trophy, and perhaps more lucratively, a return to the Champions League.
However, two first-half goals for Villarreal left Arsenal staring at an unceremonious exit from the competition that has become pivotal to their season.
A Nicolas Pepe restored some hope for Mikel Arteta’s side, and gave the Gunners a crucial away goal to take back to North London.
Story of the game
Despite Arsenal being boosted by the return to training of trio Kieran Tierney, Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, none were risked on the Spanish coast. Instead, Nicolas Pepe was preferred as the lone striker, whilst Granit Xhaka kept his place at left back.
It was down Arsenal’s left flank that Villareal found early joy, a jinking run from Samuel Chukwueze finding space inside the box, before the ball fell for Manuel Trigueros to fire a low drive below Bernd Leno from ten yards out.
Despite the Gunners responding brightly to going a goal down through some neat interplay, they crucially failed to test the goalkeeper, and The Yellow Submarine doubled their lead as Raul Albiol fired in from a corner on the half-hour mark.
Arsenal thought that they had been handed a lifeline just five minutes later when Juan Foyth brought down Nicolas Pepe inside the box, only for VAR to correctly overturn the on-field decision for a handball by the Arsenal winger in the build-up.
The Gunners’ night went from bad to worse just before the hour mark, with Dani Ceballos, perhaps lucky to last as long as he did, shown a second yellow card for a late challenge on Dani Parejo, leaving Arteta’s men with a mountain to climb.
Down to ten men, it truly seemed that Arsenal were dead and buried in the tie. As he has so often this season, however, Bukayo Saka provided a key spark.
Drifting into the box, the wonderkid went down amidst a crowd of yellow shirts, and the referee had no hesitation in pointing to the spot. Despite a slight delay, Pepe coolly converted the spot kick, and offered Arsenal a glimmer of hope.
That glimmer became a ray ten minutes later, when ex-Watford midfielder Etienne Capoue was shown a second yellow card, leaving both sides to play the last ten minutes with ten men.
This result means that it remains all to play for in the second leg back in at the Emirates Stadium. The Gunners will be boosted by the potential returns of Lacazette and Tierney, and will go into the game confident that they can turn the tie around, and book their place in the Europa League final.
Man of the Match: Nicolas Pepe
In a game littered with poor performances, Pepe was one of few bright sparks. The Ivorian winger worked hard for his side, supporting the press as well as covering for Xhaka when required.
In perhaps the most important moment of Arsenal’s season, it was Pepe who stepped up to take responsibility to get Arsenal back into the tie, calmly slotting his penalty down the middle of the goal.
His pace and trickery caused Foyth a plethora of problems in the first half, and he found himself at the centre of all of Arsenal’s good work.