Villarreal and Arsenal locked horns at the Estadio de la Cerámica in first leg of the UEFA Europa League semifinals. Unai Emery faced his former team for the first time since his sacking in 2019 and oversaw a memorable victory, as the La Liga side recorded a 2-1 victory at home.
Mikel Arteta's side suffered more misery in what has been another dismal campaign for the Gunners, as they run the risk of missing out on Europe altogether next season after their first-leg defeat.
Arsenal started the game on the backfoot and fell behind next to no time, as Villarreal raced off the blocks to break the deadlock in the fifth minute through an unlikely source. Manuel Trigueros got his name on the scoresheet with a close-range finish past Bernd Leno after the ball had ricocheted onto his path from just inside the penalty area.
The home side slowly grew in stature as the game progressed and deservedly added to their lead from a corner, as Raul Albiol slammed the ball into the net after Gerard Moreno brilliantly won the first ball.
Just before the half-time whistle, Arsenal had a penalty overturned upon consultation with the VAR after Nicolas Pepe was adjudged to have handled the ball in the build-up.
Arsenal can take encouragement from their second-half performance though, as they pushed numbers forward in search of an away goal. However, their night got a bit worse before it got better, as Dani Ceballos was sent off for two bookable offenses.
Despite the Spaniard's sending off, the Gunners pulled one goal back courtesy of a Nicolas Pepe penalty. The referee's decision to award the spot-kick, however, raised eyebrows, as Bukayo Saka seemingly went down too easily. Nevertheless, the Ivorian stepped up and halved the deficit, as Arsenal were rewarded for their spirited showing after the interval.
With 10 minutes left on the clock, Villarreal also had a man sent off, as Etienne Capoue received his marching orders for a rash tackle on Saka. The Frenchman somehow came out worse from the challenge and was stretchered off the pitch after receiving his second yellow card of the game.
Villarreal defended frantically in the closing stages of the game but somehow managed to hold onto their lead, as they prepare to go to the Emirates Stadium next week with a slender one-goal advantage.
On that note, here are the hits and flops from an intriguing contest in Spain.
HIT - Raul Albiol | Villarreal
Raul Albiol was by far the best defender on the pitch and also got his name on the scoresheet in the first half. Arsenal didn't get too far forward in the first half but launched wave after wave of attack after the interval, as they threatened to get back into the game.
While he wasn't involved in the penalty incident, he did his best to sniff out danger at the back and marshaled the backline expertly. His second-half goal turned out to be the winner on the night, as he crept in behind Thomas Partey and smashed the ball home from close range.
FLOP - Dani Ceballos | Arsenal
Dani Ceballos enjoyed a miserable return to Spain, as he was sent off for two bookable offenses in quick succession in the second half. The midfielder saw a lot of the ball in the opening exchanges of the game but was largely pedestrian as the game went on.
Arsenal looked much better in the second half, but the Real Madrid loanee didn't cover himself in glory. The second yellow card awarded to him seemed a bit harsh, but Ceballos put his team at a massive disadvantage, as the Gunners played a sizable chunk of the second half with ten men before Capoue's dismissal.
HIT - Samuel Chukwueze | Villarreal
Samuel Chukwueze provided the assist for the opening goal of the game but it could be argued that he didn't know much about it, as the ball ricocheted onto Manuel Trigueros' path. The Nigerian winger showed glimpses of his pace and dribbling ability in the first half but fully came alive after the interval.
Villarreal were second best in the last quarter of the game, but Chukwueze looked dangerous every time he got on the ball and created a few chances for his side, one of which produced a brilliant Bernd Leno save from a Gerard Moreno shot.
The exciting winger recorded his fifth assist of the UEFA Europa League campaign and showed exactly why he is currently one of the biggest matchwinners in La Liga.
FLOP - Thomas Partey | Arsenal
Thomas Partey misplaced way too many passes for a player of his caliber and failed to exert his influence in the game. While he did grow into the game in the second half, Arsenal's midfield lacked drive and composure on the night, as Dani Ceballos also produced a sub-par performance.
The former Atletico Madrid man also let Raul Albion creep in behind him for what turned out to be the winning goal, as the Spanish defender slammed the ball home from close range.
Partey is capable of playing much better than he did against Villarreal and will need to silence his critics in the coming weeks with a string of impressive displays at the heart of the Gunners midfield.
HIT - Nicolas Pepe | Arsenal
In the absence of Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang -- who was on the bench -- the goalscoring burden fell on record signing Nicolas Pepe. The Ivorian looked lively on the night but didn't get himself on the ball as much as he'd have liked in the first half.
However, he looked much better after the interval, as he dropped back and tried to make things happen for his side. Pepe also ensured he did his defensive duties, as he tracked back a handful of times to help out the Arsenal fullbacks.
The Gunners didn't create too many chances, but Pepe calmly converted a penalty to give his side hope going into the second leg.