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. Such was the Arsenal striker’s brutal, relentless quality here that he even silenced the raucous Mestalla, gradually throttling the home side with one precise finish after another.
And that’s before we even come to Alexandre Lacazette, the second-best player on the pitch but still miles ahead of anyone in Valencia white. They have been taking turns as the star men throughout this Europa League campaign, the two strikers, and it was no different on a night that must rank as one of Arsenal’s best in Europe in recent years.
Lacazette got two in the first leg, when Aubameyang got one. Aubameyang got three here, and 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. The Arsenal coach has now won 19 consecutive knockout ties in the Europa League, a run stretching all the way back to 2012.
“We showed our character,” said Emery, saying the mentality shown in the performances here and in Napoli, in the previous round, were “perfect”. He also reserved high praise for his strikers, hailing them for their defensive diligence as much as their deadly finishing in attack. “When their commitment is like today, defensively, to work to help us, it is amazing,” Emery said.
The fact that Emery chose to focus on the dirty work of a striker who had just plundered three goals, in one of the most intimidating venues in Europe, was indicative of the all-round nature of Aubameyang’s performance. If he was not battering the ball into the top corner, as he did for his third, then he was racing back to challenge the left-back, or scorching down the wing to create a chance for Lacazette.
Provided that Aubameyang takes this form to Baku, and Lacazette continues to do so much exceptional work alongside him, then Arsenal will have every chance of beating Chelsea in their first European final since 2006. “We can be proud of our players,” said Emery. “But it’s not finished. We have one step more.”
By the time of the final whistle. the opening goal, scored by Valencia’s Kevin Gameiro, felt so long ago that it might as well have been scored in a different season. That early strike, from a swift counter-attack, gave hope to Valencia and their fans, who had swamped the streets two hours before kick-off in an attempt to inspire a ‘remontada’ to compare with the results produced by Spurs and Liverpool this week.
Valencia knew a 2-0 win would be enough to put them through and their players began the match like attack dogs freed of their leashes. As the Mestalla hummed and whistled, 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, whose last ever match will be against his former club, to be assured in goal.
In that moment when Gameiro struck the opener, the tie evolved from tricky away match into a genuine test of Arsenal’s nerve. Fortunately for Emery, Aubameyang and Lacazette aren’t the nervous 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.
Lacazette turned an aimless hoof into an assist, flicking on the bouncing ball for Aubameyang. The early strike, taken before Valencia had clocked the danger, seared into the corner and changed the dynamic again. It should have been two a few minutes later, when Lacazette clipped the outside of the post from Aubameyang’s cross.
The pattern continued after the break, when the Arsenal fans became increasingly delirious up in the top tier of this grand old arena. Aubameyang broke down the right before Torreira spotted Lacazette. The Frenchman turned inside, shimmying those hips, then ripped his low shot into the corner.
Valencia now needed four in around 35 minutes, which truly would have been a comeback worthy of the ages. Recent history provided hope, at least, as did Gameiro’s second of the night, bobbled in from Rodrigo’s shot. But then Ainsley Maitland-Niles darted forward, crossing for Aubameyang at the near post.
It was game over, but Aubameyang was not done there. Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s pass then found him in the box, and the finish was nothing if not emphatic. Arsenal’s surge towards next season’s Champions League is not just on track, but gaining momentum. With Aubameyang in this sort of form, they will be mighty hard to stop.
Neto 5; Piccini 5 (Soler 56), Garay 6, Gabriel 5, Gaya 5; Wass 5, Coquelin 5, Parejo 6, Guedes 6 (Torres 71); Rodrigo 6 (Mina 72), Gameiro 6
Subs: Domenech, Roncaglia, Diakhaby, Lato, Torres
Booked: Gaya, Garay
Cech 6; Sokratis 6, Koscielny 7, Monreal 6; Maitland-Niles 6, Torreira 7 (Guendouzi 80), Xhaka 6, Kolasinac 6 (Mustafi 71) ; Ozil 7 (Mkhitaryan 62); Lacazette 8, Aubameyang 9
Subs: Leno, Elneny, Iwobi, Nketiah
Referee: Danny Makkelie (NED)
Unai Emery says he's proud
Very proud of the players and supporters, we deserve it. The Europa League is one way to the champion and to enjoy moment like today. The players do all they can, supporters can be proud of all Arsenal.
The past is for (no idea) but you see the present, we spoke a lot about how many finalists play our players and also Arsenal, it's very difficult. Today we did that and are very contented to make that.
Petr Cech says he has considered not retiring
I enjoyed when we scored the fourth one, that's the first moment I enjoyed because you never know. When you score the third and fourth I thought OK, we are there.
You have days when you play well you come home and think, well should you continue or not. The decision I made with a lot of though, everyone's telling me I'm a bit crazy to retire now but I'd prefer to retire two years early rather than one year too late. Before I break and I'm too old.
It's the worst game when you play it because the pressure but it's the best game to play. As a little boy you dream of playing in a European final. There's a reason I go to training every day, I want to play finals, win trophies, this is why you play football.
The key is to play your game, when you go to the final you arrived because you played your best game.
I cannot feel like it's never ending but before the last game I'll feel a different emotion. We lost the game in Borisov - that could have been the last game. It's not so hard to lose, that could have been it. I'm glad that there is three more weeks!
I have to see! I keep the door open for whatever comes. Staying home, doing nothing, playing ice hockey, playing drums is always a possibility. I'll sit at home and see what will come.
In history nobody remembers who you beat, only who won.
Who will Arsenal play?
Well nobody knows that yet but you can follow the action and find out with Rob Bagchi's liveblog right here. Chelsea and Frankfurt are in extra time, Sarri's getting booed for his substitutions and Luka Jovic is at it!
The nearest thing to Henry in an Arsenal shirt
That's what Martin Keown thinks about Aubameyang.
The rammy is over after Monreal calls out his old teammate Gabriel, pulling him away to ask what's going on. The referee shows a yellow card to... someone. No idea who. It doesn't matter - Arsenal are in the final!
90 mins +2 - Valencia 2 Arsenal 4 (3-7 on agg)
There are two minutes of added time to be played and like a real jobsworth, the referee makes the teams play all of them. But that's it! Arsenal are going to the final! Oh but wait a minute, it's all kicking off. MKhitaryan chases the ball to the corner, players are squaring up by the corner flag. Maitland-Niles is being shoved in the face...
AUBAMEYANG HAS HIS FIRST ARSENAL HAT-TRICK!
Jeez that is a pretty sexy goal, it has to be said. The fans cheer each pass, Aubameyang plays a one-two with Guendouzi but dummies the reverse, runs over it and nips onto the through-ball. From a tight angle in the six yard box he selects 'POWER DRIVE' and smashes the ball through time and past the goalie into the back of the net.
88 mins - Valencia 2 Arsenal 3 (3-6 on agg)
Arsenal fans are cheering every pass until they boo Mkhitaryan for messing up the move. As soon as Arsenal win it back the 'ole!' chants start again. They cheer all the way up the pitch and now AUBAMEYANG IS IN!
87 mins - Valencia 2 Arsenal 3 (3-6 on agg)
Valencia attack, Arsenal win the ball, Arsenal attack, the final ball isn't quite good enough and Valencia survive. Just end the game ref, it's done!
84 mins - Valencia 2 Arsenal 3 (3-6 on agg)
Gaya tries a shot from 25 yards but flies it wide as he strikes across the ball with his left foot. Would have looked nice if that had gone in.
Suddenly Mkhitaryan is away on the right wing as he reads a pass and steals it. Aubameyang pulls away to the back post and is open, the pass is aimed towards him but it takes a deflection and is a corner. No hat-trick for you, Pierre.
81 mins - Valencia 2 Arsenal 3 (3-6 on agg)
Guendouzi is coming on for Arsenal now, replacing Torreira.
I'm going to assume Ozil was gesturing towards Valencia fans having a go at him for his Real Madrid days. Either that or this the celebration people do when they are substituted in Fortnite.
78 mins - Valencia 2 Arsenal 3 (3-6 on agg)
Sokratis has to slide to block at the near post as Soler gets in behind but the corner comes to nothing. Aubameyang has done a lot of running tonight. He's defending wide right in the midfield in a 5-1-3-1 shape for Arsenal.
Valencia are still going though but too many crosses are being easily headed away.
75 mins - Valencia 2 Arsenal 3 (3-6 on agg)
A heap of Valencia fans have decided they've had enough. That last Arsenal goal is a good excuse to get home early and beat the traffic.
72 mins - Valencia 2 Arsenal 3 (3-6 on agg)
Kolasinac has started getting pretty bad cramp and Emery decides not to risk him. Mustafi comes on in his place.
Valencia make a change too: Santi Mina on, Rodrigo off.
Brilliant goal. Arsenal are going to the final. Shirley.
Valencia 2 Arsenal 3 (Aubameyang) (3-6 on agg)
Aubameyang taps in at the near post as Maitland-Niles gets up the right wing and completely pies the left-back with a quick two-step feint. The cross is perfectly placed, Aubameyang reads it and finishes!
68 mins - Valencia 2 Arsenal 2 (3-5 on agg)
Valencia have all the momentum and keep coming at Arsenal. They're sending long passes out to the wings then trying to get the ball into the area but Arsenal are defending well.
65 mins - Valencia 2 Arsenal 2 (3-5 on agg)
Valencia still think they can win this, they're really trying very hard to win. Arsenal are having to defend in numbers as Valencia rush around with the ball, moving it quickly. Garay steps forwards, has space and decides to shoot from 35 yards. He's properly launched that one but it's wide of the post. Cech looked beaten!
62 mins - Valencia 2 Arsenal 2 (3-5 on agg)
Mkhitaryan is getting ready to come on, which reminds me that Ozil is still playing. Except he's not now because Mkhitaryan is his direct replacement. Ozil looks raging to have been subbed but he's done mostly nothing.
But wait a minute, Valencia have scored again!
Valencia 2 (Gameiro 58') Arsenal 2
A pass between Monreal and Kolasinac splits the defence, a shot is fired into Gameiro's feet but he manages to scoop it out with a heel flick and finish into the empty net. They need three. There's no way anyone's scoring three goals in a European semi-final.
57 mins - Valencia 1 Arsenal 2 (2-5 on agg)
Valencia players are frustrated and taking it out on Arsenal players at the moment. Xhaka has a chance to shoot from 35 yards as another foul gives Arsenal a free-kick but luckily for Valencia, the attempt is diabolical.
Carlos Soler comes on to replace Piccini.
54 mins - Valencia 1 Arsenal 2 (2-5 on agg)
Sokratis has taken a sore one from Rodrigo, who catches him with a late tackle. Rodrigo tries to apologise but having torn a hole in Sokratis' sock from the force of tackle, he might do well to pay attention to his surroundings for a while.
LACAZETTE HAS SCORED!
Valencia 1 Arsenal 2 (Lacazette 50') (2-5 on agg)
It's a missed control from Parajo, Aubameyang wins a tackle high up the pitch and plays in Torreira, who fires a pass to Lacazette in the area, who kills it, rolls his marker and finishes into the far corner. Brilliant finish.
49 mins - Valencia 1 Arsenal 1 (2-4 on agg)
Arsenal win a corner. Xhaka crosses in to the box, the bounce beats everyone and Arsenal keep possession, going back to Cech. But Cech is being closed down and has to clear! Just manages to boot the ball away before he's caught.
48 mins - Valencia 1 Arsenal 1 (2-4 on agg)
Valencia on the attack from the start, win a corner and work a decent short routine that ends with a shot smashing off Coquelin and going out for a goal kick.
KICK OFF 2
50 - Since his Arsenal debut in August 2017, Alexandre Lacazette has been directly involved in 50 goals for the club in all competitions, more than any other player (35 goals, 15 assists). Striking. pic.twitter.com/rCh56K3p8D— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) May 9, 2019
It's nice that you know these two are actual pals outside the office. Hanging out, working on little celebrations, scoring goals all over the town. Monday night score goals at the pub quiz, Tuesday night squash, Wednesday night don't hang out, Thursday night goals.
Arsenal don't look like they're in control of this one but they do look like they're going to win it. The thing is... 45 minutes is a long time in a European club competition semi-final this season and Valencia were still attacking right to the end of the first half.
45 mins - Valencia 1 Arsenal 1 (2-4 on agg)
Gaya goes down in the area! The crowd erupts but the referee shakes his head and immediately shows a yellow card. Good. He was cheating. Gaya goes round the outside of Maitland-Niles, expects the tackle and drops to the floor. Booooooooooo.
And he's shaking his head in disgust with the referee as he walks away. Unbelievable.
42 mins - Valencia 1 Arsenal 1 (2-4 on agg)
This happened about 5 yards from us. I think they were aiming for Keown... pic.twitter.com/c27S4auGdI— Jake Humphrey (@mrjakehumphrey) May 9, 2019
40 mins - Valencia 1 Arsenal 1 (2-4 on agg)
It should be 2-1 Arsenal. Has to be. Aubameyang works magic on the right wing to put Gabriel in the bin with a shoulder drop, then faces up to the defence at the box in a two v three. Lacazette drops to the edge of the box, the pass is perfect and Lacazette thumps his shot wide of the target.
39 mins - Valencia 1 Arsenal 1 (2-4 on agg)
Both managers are trying to direct play as though they're competing with each other on a Playstation. No matter how or where Emery points, I'm not sure the player on the opposite wing to him is going to be able to execute this fairly animated instructions.
Lacazette has been caught late with a bad tackle from behind by Garay. It's only a yellow card, who has his feet taken away from under him by the slide tackle. Garay waves his finger at the referee as though he did nothing wrong.
36 mins - Valencia 1 Arsenal 1 (2-4 on agg)
Lacazette is put into the box again, uses clever movement and some nice bits of skill to turn his man but can't get a shot in. He spots Ozil pulling away at the far post and attempts to bend a low pass to him but has given the ball away and Valencia break. Torreira sprints back to assist and ends up giving away a free-kick in Beckham territory. Parejo can hit these.
33 mins - Valencia 1 Arsenal 1 (2-4 on agg)
Valencia are hitting passes with a lot of power in Arsenal's half but a weak effort has given the ball away and now Arsenal can break. Lacazette is threaded in but can't beat the defender for pace, Monreal strides forward, sees Aubameyang on the edge of the box and tees him up... but the shot is low and easy for the goalie to save.
30 mins - Valencia 1 Arsenal 1 (2-4 on agg)
Arsenal look to have a grasp on possession and then Monreal can't reach an easy pass and Valencia are on them again. The Mestalla crowd yell MAN ON (in Spanish) to Coquelin to prevent him being robbed.
Coquelin goes for a header with Aubameyang and something's twanged in his back - he's in a lot of pain and is on the ground in agony needing treatment. He wasn't clattered, it looks like a muscle injury or as though he got a hip bone into an existing painful bit.
28 mins - Valencia 1 Arsenal 1 (2-4 on agg)
Xhaka takes a corner, some massive bang noise is heard, presumably a flare or something, and Aubameyang heads over. I'm not sure the noise and his miss are linked.
Parajo picks the ball up just inside the Arsenal half, smashes a pass out to the left wing and Maitland-Niles doesn't deal with it well. Valencia follow up and a shot from distance crashes well wide of the goal.
25 mins - Valencia 1 Arsenal 1 (2-4 on agg)
Valencia work the ball around the Arsenal half and get another shot on goal. It's thumped over the bar from some distance, Cech takes his time and kicks long.
Ozil finally gets involved with play and links some nice quick passes out on the left wing to win Arsenal a corner.
22 mins - Valencia 1 Arsenal 1 (2-4 on agg)
Is Ozil on the pitch? I'm not sure he's had a touch yet. Wait, there he is. Jumping half-heartedly to maybe block a cross into the box. Parejo moves the ball out to the left and yet again Valencia are in space.
Again Valencia come down the left wing - Emery has to do something about it because Maitland-Niles is being overworked. Valencia win a corner but it's headed away by Xhaka.
19 mins - Valencia 1 Arsenal 1 (2-4 on agg)
The atmosphere, specifically the noise, has dropped about 50 per cent since that suckerpunch goal. Valencia now need to score twice to take this game to extra time.
ARSENAL ARE BACK LEVEL!
Valencia 1 Arsenal 1 (Aubameyang 17) (2-4 on agg)
A long punt from Cech, Gabriel has two attempts to deal with it and doesn't, Aubameyang runs onto the header from Lacazette and finishes brilliantly past the goalkeeper!
16 mins - Valencia 1 Arsenal 0 (2-3 on agg)
It's not all about the shape, of course, but there's something that doesn't suit Arsenal with this back three. Valencia are having little trouble in opening them up either and yet again they've found space on the wings. Rodrigo has a chance to shoot from 25 yards, lines it up and launches a rocket... just wide! So close.
15 mins - Valencia 1 Arsenal 0 (2-3 on agg)
IT SHOULD BE 2-0! Arsenal are all over the place and Maitland-Niles is being taught a thing or two. Valencia are getting in down the left side over and over again and Moreno has a chance to shoot inside the area. The ball is flying into the bottom corner but hits Gameiro's boot and Arsenal are saved.
VALENCIA HAVE THE LEAD!
Valencia 1 (Gameiro 11') Arsenal 0
Maitland-Niles has a shot, Valencia counter and within about three passes have ripped Arsenal open.
They're so flimsy and Valencia have taken advantage! The ball goes wide left, a reverse pass bamboozles the defence and Gameiro is at the back post to finish.
11 mins - Valencia 0 Arsenal 0
Another ex-Arsenal player, Gabriel heads away a high ball and Valencia are on the counter! They're finding space behind Arsenal's wing-backs easily here AND THEY'RE IN!!!!
10 mins - Valencia 0 Arsenal 0
It's all a bit scrappy in the Arsenal defence, for a change, and Valencia are causing them problems here. Guedes fires a shot over the bar from wide of the box, Koscielny has wildly swung at the ball in the box and missed... gets away with it.
There are two balls on the pitch but the referee hasn't spotted it... play continues, Valencia have a shot and it nearly hits the ball in the box, which might have deflected it past Cech! Imagine that.
8 mins - Valencia 0 Arsenal 0
And Ian Darke is back now. There was a power cut in all the commentary positions apparently but that was so liberating... and Robbie Savage is on the mic now.
Kolasinac takes a painful fall as he tries to jump over a defender when going for a header. I think he'll be alright.
5 mins - Valencia 0 Arsenal 0
It's a little bit like Hartson and Keown are doing co-commentary but without a commentator. Like in the Garfield minus Garfield cartoons.
It's great! More of this. And all of a sudden they're in a bit of trouble, Arsenal, as a long ball over the top beats Monreal and is chased down by a forward! Monreal recovers.
3 mins - Valencia 0 Arsenal 0
The game's kicked off and BT Sport have lost their commentary team! Martin Keown says these are "vital moments for Arsenal" and then John Hartson joins in as Arsenal pass their way to the final third and win a throw-in.
It's actually quite nice without commentary.
This stadium looks cool.
The Europa League themetune
It's rubbish. I'm not having it. Let's watch Petr Cech smash some drums instead.
The starting lineups
Arsenal are 3-4-1-2 and I'm genuinely surprised Ozil is starting. He's not exactly the most energetic of defenders and considering the Gunners need to protect a two goal lead, that might not help. Or will it? Valencia's 4-4-2 will be set to attack for a lot of this game and as players surge forwards, Ozil's eye for a through-ball could unlock them on the counter should Arsenal win the ball in a decent position.
A former Valencia manager (the one after Gary Neville and five before Marcelino) has just spend some time talking to BT Sport's pundits, who seem to slowly loose patience with him answering questions in an interesting, if lengthy way. Martin Keown even starts interrupting him to try and finish his sentences, as though bored of listening. Lovely stuff.
Anyway, Ayestaran says Unai Emery has changed. He used to work with him as an assistant (I think) and claims Emery now wants his team to be able to play in every possible system rather than excel in one, and at times thinks too much. He also reckons Valencia's strikers will look to make runs into space wide of the back three behind the wing-backs.
More of the Valencia fans
That's the Arsenal bus arriving (don't worry, they got there ages ago) but I'm going to assume the players realise they're in a game about now.
Valencia fans really don't like Unai Emery either for his celebrations as a Sevilla manager when winning there, having managed Valencia himself.
Valencia fans seem up for this
The (not quite) Chaaaaaaaaampions!
Hello and welcome to our Europa League semi-final liveblog as Arsenal try not to do a Barcelona or Ajax, despite having copied their setup for the last 20 years or so, and not concede a crazy few goals to throw away a commanding lead.
This last week of football has been mental. Scarcely believable, emotional rollercoasters that make you wonder whether we are all inside a simulation. If we are, suddenly all those ludicrous games I've lost on Pro Evo or Football Manager make sense. We're through the looking glass, people!
Valencia are taking this one dead seriously and the fans have been out creating something of an atmosphere.
Get the impression this lot might be in the mood for another European comeback. A simple 2-0 will do the job for Valencia. pic.twitter.com/5NTaABxJnU— Sam Dean (@SamJDean) May 9, 2019
Arsenal have only ever won the Cup Winners' Cup (I'm not counting the Fairs Cup, sorry) and Unai Emery wants to change that. The Europa League is second tier but the prize on offer is not and if the club are to progress and attract the two or three players who can take them to another level during the summer, winning it is essential.
Valencia are fifth in La Liga and not quite the force they were in the early 2000s... which makes this a perfectly even match. Francis Coquelin could be in midfield tonight - remember him? - which goes someway to placing exactly how good they are. The players on the pitch will decide the outcome, and the starting lineups are in!
Neto, Piccini, Paulista, Garay, Gayà, Wass, Parejo, Coquelin, Guedes, Gameiro, Rodrigo
Cech, Maitland-Niles, Sokratis, Koscielny, Monreal, Kolasinac, Xhaka, Torreira, Ozil, Aubameyang, Lacazette