Unai Emery won his huge reunion with Arsenal, but 2-1 could be insufficient for Villarreal, who struggled to capitalise on Dani Ceballos’ dismissal in a frantic Europa League semi-final first leg on Thursday.
Villarreal got off to a flying start at La Ceramica thanks to Manu Trigueros and Raul Albiol, and the tie appeared to be slipping away from Arsenal when Ceballos was given a second yellow card early in the second half.
However, Arsenal rallied and scored an away goal in the 73rd minute when Nicolas Pepe converted a penalty, before Villarreal’s Etienne Capoue was sent off with 10 minutes remaining.
Jean-Emerick Aubameyang may have grabbed a late equaliser for the visitors, but Mikel Arteta would be relieved that his team is not only in the game, but also in a good place, with an away goal to take back to London next week.
Villarreal squandered a chance, but the lead is still welcome, and Emery will take solace in the fact that they were the better side for the better part of an hour, right before Ceballos was sent off.
Emery said on Wednesday that after a tumultuous 18 months in charge of Arsenal before being fired in 2019, he will still have a “place in his heart” for the club.
He may also be envious of his successor, Arteta, who is under pressure to win the Europa League and qualify for the Champions League, despite Arsenal’s place in the Premier League table, which is 10th and nowhere near the top four.
In the fifth minute, Villarreal took the lead with a free-flowing pass out from the back that Arteta will be proud of.
It began with Geronimo Rulli, the goalkeeper, and ended with Samuel Chukwueze driving into the box, the ball spilling out to Trigueros, who drove into the far corner.
Villarreal made it two after just 30 minutes, this time from a simpler source, as Dani Parejo’s corner was flicked on by Gerard Moreno and Albiol stuck out a foot at the back post.
Emery introduced Francis Coquelin to provide some defence, but the game’s dynamic shifted just before the hour when Ceballos landed late on Parejo’s ankle, earning a second yellow card.
Moreno could have made it three, but Bernd Leno deflected his shot, and Arsenal were given a lifeline when Bukayo Saka nipped between Capoue and Trigueros before tumbling over. Pepe drilled the penalty shot down the middle and into the net.
Villarreal’s lead had been cut in half, and their numerical superiority had disappeared as Capoue flew in late on Saka, injuring himself in the process.
Arsenal were looking for an equaliser, and Aubameyang, who came on as a substitute, had a chance when he was slipped in on the right side of the area, but Rulli made the save.