LONDON – Arsenal took a huge step towards the Europa League final as a double from Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s late strike earned a 3-1 semi-final, first leg win over Valencia on Thursday.
The Spanish side’s bright start was rewarded with Mouctar Diakhaby’s away goal, but Lacazette quickly turned the game around with two goals in eight minutes, before Aubameyang’s late intervention gave the Gunners a two-goal advantage to defend at the Mestalla on May 9.
In the other semi-final, Chelsea drew 1-1 with Eintracht Frankfurt in Germany.
Arsenal boss Unai Emery is a Europa League specialist, having won the competition three times when in charge at Sevilla.
And the Spaniard’s decision to start Lacazette and Aubameyang together against his former side was richly rewarded despite a terrible start from the hosts.
The Gunners had conceded three times in all three Premier League defeats to Crystal Palace, Wolves and Leicester, and the same defensive deficiencies cost them again early on against the Spanish outfit.
Valencia had already missed a glorious chance to take the lead when Ezequiel Garay somehow turned Rodrigo’s driven cross over the bar from point-blank range.
However, the hosts did not learn their lesson and from another set-piece, Valencia took the lead when Diakhaby got the final touch at the back post to force home Rodrigo’s header across goal.
Emery has been reticent to start Lacazette and Aubameyang together upfront, but the game turned on one moment of magic from Arsenal’s two prolific strikers.
Lacazette played in Aubameyang and the Gabon international left his marker and Valencia goalkeeper Neto on the ground before squaring for his strike partner to roll into an empty net.
Seven minutes later, Arsenal led as terrible defending allowed Lacazette a free header from Granit Xhaka’s cross, and a weak hand from Neto could not prevent the ball crossing the line.
The chances continued to come for Arsenal’s front two as Aubameyang volleyed into the ground and over just before the break.
Lacazette then had two glorious opportunities to complete his hat trick as he firstly failed to connect with an inch-perfect Aubameyang cross, before Neto made a brilliant save at his near post to keep the Spanish side in the tie.
At the other end, Petr Cech also had to make a smart stop as he raced from his goal to deny substitute Kevin Gameiro.
Arsenal still have work to do, with their terrible away record this season likely to give Valencia plenty of encouragement.
However, they moved much closer to booking their place in the Baku final when Aubameyang turned home at the back post in the final minute.
Meanwhile, a first-half strike from Pedro gave Chelsea a slender advantage against Eintracht Frankfurt.
Pedro’s equaliser gave Chelsea a potentially crucial away goal after a hard-fought semi-final clash in a spine-tingling atmosphere at the Commerzbank Arena.
Fired on by the home crowd, fearless underdogs Frankfurt surprised Chelsea in the first half before being outclassed for long periods after the break.
Yet Adi Huetter’s side battled through a tough second half to hold on to a draw, and leave the tie finely poised ahead of next Thursday’s second leg in London.
Chelsea coach Maurizio Sarri raised eyebrows with his decision to leave Eden Hazard out of the starting line-up, and his team struggled to deal with a ferocious Frankfurt in the first half.
Filip Kostic found the breakthrough on 23 minutes, sending a pinpoint low cross to Luka Jovic, who ducked low to flick his header inside the far post.
Frankfurt then tried to grab control of the tie, with Sebastian Rode snapping at Chelsea’s heels in midfield and Jovic and Mijat Gacinovic lurking in wait for a chance to break.
Yet Sarri’s side eased their way patiently back into the game, and deserved to draw level when Pedro finally found the net with a well-placed strike just before halftime.
It remained a fiercely contested game after the break, and Chelsea midfielder Jorginho had to be bandaged up after a clash of heads with Rode.
Always a step ahead of Frankfurt in the second half, the visitors nearly took the lead when David Luiz struck the bar with a fizzing free kick.
Frankfurt had a penalty appeal waved away 12 minutes from time, and both David Abraham and substitute Goncalo Paciencia came close to snatching a late winner.AFP