To those watching the first 30 minutes of the Villarreal-Arsenal semifinal first leg yesterday, and regardless of the team they supported, the picture was pretty clear: Villarreal was leading 2-0, and they were the more incisive team on the pitch, while Arsenal tried to find a way in, while retaining possession with a strikerless tactic that was not working.
Villarreal’s fanbase spread out throughout the 4 miles that go from the training grounds of Miralcamp to La Ceramica to cheer, support, scream and shout, with the players themselves chanting and cheering back from inside the bus; and it seemed as though the players took that energy into the pitch.
Back to the field, the first half ended with a really good feeling for Emery and his players–up by two goals, at home, and Arsenal unable to do anything about it. I feel as though that was the first problem, though–Unai saw an opportunity to shut down the match and go to the Emirates Stadium with a two-goal lead and no away goals to have to respond to. Out went Alcacer, and in went Coquelin.
Five minutes into the second half, you could tell the problem was obvious: Arsenal changed a few things, went up the pitch, and Villarreal welcomed the pressure. However, Ceballos felt like throwing us a bone, and after two hard tackles in ten minutes, the Spaniard was handed a red card.
This was the best moment for Villarreal in the match: up 2-0, and playing against ten. Just at that moment, Gerard Moreno, lethargic and less sharp than usual, found a one-on-one chance with Leno, and the german goalkeeper performed one of the saves of the tournament to keep his team in it.
Then came the penalty. Manu Trigueros very obviously stepped away as Bukayo Saka attempted to charge into the box, extended his leg, actually was the one who hit the midfielder, and the penalty was called. Even after VAR check, the call stood.
My main concern here is not that this was called as a penalty–it happens all the time. However, it is usually less blatant than this one was; Saka was obvious in his effort to make contact. Portuguese referee Artur Soares, who seemed determined to be the protagonist, blindly followed the advice of a machine that basically told him “there was contact.” Anyone who has played soccer knows that was not a penalty–but the damage was done.
Rulli couldn’t do anything, Pepe scored, and the tides turned. Shortly afterwards, Capoue slipped while attempting a tackle, and managed two things: getting injured, and getting sent off. With 10v10 on the pitch, and Arsenal in the upswing, things were not looking good for the Yellow Submarine.
Aubameyang came in for barely 10 mintues and had a clear chance to tie the match, forcing Rulli to make the only save of his night, but also making clear to Villarreal that the second leg will be much, much harder to defend. In the end, both teams seemed okay letting it be and agreeing to finish things off in seven days.
Overall, this was a huge opportunity for Villarreal to finally claim a spot in the final. While the score would not have been as certified as the Manchester United thrashing of Roma 6-2 at Old Traffort, a 2-0 or 3-0 result would have been very hard to climb for a very irregular Arsenal. Now, and in true Yellow Submarine nature, the team will have to suffer if they want to play in the final.
- Local newspaper Mediterraneo said the best player was Foyth, and I agree. He was superb up the right flank, and strong in defense, although his one mistake almost cost Villarreal a penalty (thank you this time, VAR). He did get injured and is expected to miss the second leg though, so Mario will have to step up. He’s done it before–he’s in the top five of Villarreal players with the most European matches, over 50.
- Mediterraneo also called Rulli “Heart-attck inducing,”, and once again, I agree. He lingers on the ball so much, sometimes you wonder if he is an outfield player. I understand he is trying to draw tyhe striker in so he can free up the defender to start the play, but he needs to see the play and make the pass faster.
- President Fernando Roig flat out said that “It was not a penalty,” while Manu Trigueros mentioned post-match that “They got out of here alive.”
- Emery on his end was direct about the penalty call: “Why didn’t VAR come in? I can’t understand it. I thought it was a penalty since they made the call, but when I saw it.”
- And Bukayo Saka was the odd quote of the day: “We showed we were better than they were.” Interesting comment for a first half with no shots on goal and a penalty goal.