Emery relying on old friend to salvage season at Arsenal
Unai Emery is relying on an old friend to salvage something from his first year at Arsenal.
Heading into the final weeks of a season of ups and downs, Arsenal was faced with two possible paths to qualifying for the Champions League: Via a top-four finish in the Premier League or through winning the Europa League.
Was it ever really in doubt which route best suited Emery?
The Spaniard is the king of the Europa League, having won it for three straight years with Sevilla from 2014, so it is probably his natural inclination — perhaps subconsciously — to be lured by that competition.
Recent results suggest this is the case.
Since back-to-back wins over Napoli, the second best team in Italy, in the quarterfinals of the Europa League, Arsenal’s players have lost three straight games in the Premier League. They have conceded three goals in each of those three games, to Crystal Palace, Wolverhampton Wanderers and Leicester, and remain in fifth place.
Valencia — Arsenal’s opponent in the semifinals and a club Emery coached from 2008-12 — should perhaps disregard Arsenal’s recent lapses on the domestic front, when the team’s shoddy defending revived memories of some of the sadder days in the latter years of Arsene Wenger’s long tenure at the club.
Arsenal’s home form should also be of concern to the Spanish team ahead of the first leg of the semifinals at Emirates Stadium on Thursday. Before the 3-2 loss to Palace on April 21, Arsenal had won eight straight home games across all competitions and one of those was a 2-0 win over Napoli that ought to have been a wider margin of victory.
Lose in the semifinals, however, and questions will start to be asked of Emery. He earned plenty of goodwill early in the season by leading Arsenal on a three-month, 22-game unbeaten run and showing a courageous attitude to selection, including dropping Mesut Ozil — the club’s top earner and most high-profile player.
But the manner of some of Arsenal’s recent capitulations has been alarming, exposing the weaknesses in the team — especially at center back and central midfield — that were also around under Wenger. Former Valencia center back Shkodran Mustafi, in particular, has been a target of criticism from fans and pundits.
Valencia is in a similar position to Arsenal in the Spanish league, with back-to-back losses leaving the team in sixth place and struggling to finish in the top four to secure Champions League qualification. It was last in the Europa League semifinals in 2014, when it was eliminated by a Sevilla side coached by Emery.
Valencia is trying to return to a European final for the first time since 2004, when it won the UEFA Cup and then the Super Cup.
But under new coach Adi Huetter, the German team is having its best ever season in the Bundesliga — it is currently in fourth place — and reached a first European semifinal for 39 years.
The 1980 UEFA Cup winners qualified for this season’s Europa League with a win over Bayern Munich in the German Cup final last May and won all their games in a group featuring Lazio and Marseille. Since then, they’ve eliminated Shakhtar Donetsk, Inter Milan and Benfica in the knockout stages.
“We’re the rank outsider, but we’ve played well in this role in the Europa League up to now,” Frankfurt sporting director Bruno Huebner said. “We’ve grown with every challenge and believe in our chances.”
Eintracht will be without Ante Rebic, who is suspended, and fellow forward Sebastien Haller, who is injured.
Chelsea also received some bad news on the injury front ahead of the first leg in Germany, with center back Antonio Rudiger ruled out for the season because of a knee problem.
Chelsea manager Maurizio Sarri is looking to win the first trophy in his 29-year coaching career.