Nicolas Pepe’s penalty provided a Europa League lifeline for 10-man Arsenal as they were beaten 2-1 by Unai Emery’s Villarreal in a dramatic semi-final first leg in Spain.
Arsenal endured a dismal first half at Estadio de la Ceramica as poor defending allowed Manuel Trigueros to smash home from inside the box, before an unmarked Raul Albiol doubled Villarreal’s lead from close range following a corner.
Arsenal were second best to their former manager’s side and their hopes of reaching the final appeared in even greater doubt when Dani Ceballos was shown a second yellow card for planting his studs on Villarreal’s Dani Parejo early in the second half.
But the Gunners were handed a scarcely-deserved route back into the tie when Bukayo Saka was tripped by Trigueros to win a penalty, with Pepe, who had been denied a spot kick earlier in the game due to a handball picked up by VAR, holding his nerve.
It means Mikel Arteta’s side go into next Thursday’s second leg with genuine hope of reaching a second Europa League final in three seasons and with the potential of qualifying for next season’s Champions League.
Ceballos’ red card with 30 minutes left, courtesy of a second booking for standing on the boot of Daniel Parejo, looked to have sealed their fate.
But Bernd Leno produced two good saves to keep the home side at bay before Pepe – playing as a false nine – had his say.
The ‘Yellow Submarine’, managed by ex-Gunners Unai Emery, will go into the second leg on top, but facing the prospect that just one unanswered concession will send them out.