Who needs the drama and excitement of a European comeback when you can win your semi-final as convincingly as this? That will be Arsenal’s argument, anyway, on a night when the wide-eyed footballing passion we have seen all week was replaced by the cold, merciless finishing of one of the finest forwards in Europe.
There was no chance of Valencia repeating the trick produced by Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur, not with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang in this mood. With Alexandre Lacazette, Arsenal have £100m worth of elite attacking talent, boasting speed and technique and, above all, an ability to seize a big game by the throat and throttle it into submission
They have been taking turns throughout this Europa League semi-final. Lacazette got two in the first leg, Aubameyang got one. Aubameyang got three here, Lacazette got one. The Europa League has become the last hope for Arsenal, their only route into next season’s Champions League, and it is these two strikers who have dragged Unai Emery’s side to the final.
Together, they have scored 10 of Arsenal’s last 13 goals in this competition. Credit for this win goes primarily to them, then, but also to Emery for finding a system that allows them to thrive. With Arsenal’s season on the line, their head coach was unflappable as he continued his mastery of the tournament he knows better than any other. Emery has now won 19 consecutive knockout victories in the Europa League, stretching all the way back to 2012.
It is next stop Baku for Arsenal, who will take great heart from the way they quelled a hostile atmosphere on a sweltering, sweaty night in Spain.
If Arsenal had not already known the scale of the task ahead of them, it became eye-openingly obvious when their team bus arrived at the stadium to find the streets outside the Mestalla overflowing with white shirts. The home fans had arrived two hours early, bouncing as one and dreaming of adding another installment to this week of astonishing European comebacks.
Marcelino, the Valencia coach, had cited Liverpool’s ‘remontada’ against Barcelona as an inspiration but the challenge for the home side here was less daunting. A 2-0 win would do it for Valencia. Having seen the events of the past few days, there was no reason for them to believe it would not be possible.
And so Arsenal needed to be resilient, intense, aggressive. They needed Lucas Torreira to be yapping and scrapping in midfield. They needed Aubameyang to be prowling in attack. They needed Petr Cech, playing in either the penultimate or ultimate match of his career, to be assured in goal.
The blueprint for Emery’s side had been drawn up in the previous round, against Napoli. They drew the sting from the Italians, then took control, and then scored the crucial away goal. Arsenal were clearly desperate to score again in Spain, but perhaps that was the source of their early difficulties here.
Ainsley Maitland-Niles flew up the right wing, shooting across goal, and Valencia broke at speed. Suddenly it was three on three in the Arsenal half, and Valencia’s three had considerably more speed than Arsenal’s three. Laurent Koscielny could not keep up with Rodrigo and Gameiro, lurking at the far post, tapped in the opener.
In that moment, the tie evolved from tricky away match into a genuine test of Arsenal’s nerve. Valencia came again, with Gameiro accidentally blocking a left-wing shot and then Rodrigo firing wide from the edge of the box.
Fortunately for Arsenal and Emery, who knows his first season here will now be judged on whether they win this competition, Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette aren’t the nervy type. As it was in the first leg, when Arsenal’s strikers looked like Champions League forwards surrounded almost entirely by Europa League players, those two were sharper than the rest.