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Nicolas Pépé strikes from spot to give Arsenal a lifeline against Villarreal 

Arsenal stepped back from the edge and towards the semi-final. Just when their European journey appeared virtually over, down to 10 men and trailing 2-0 to goals from Manu Trigueros and Raúl Albiol, unable to muster a shot on target, and on the verge of elimination at the hands of the manager they had sacked, Bukayo Saka won a penalty that gives them hope. Mikel Arteta’s side went down in Spain, but they didn’t go out, Nicolas Pépé scoring the away goal that provides something for them to build on in seven days’ time.

For much of the night it hadn’t seemed likely, and it may not seem like much, but it is something. More, in fact, than had appeared likely for much of the night. For Arteta’s side there would be relief, a sense of rebellion too. For Villarreal, there will be a sense of lost opportunity, just when history beckoned. There may be remorse too, questions to be asked about their approach, if conservatism had cost them.

Outside, thousands of Villarreal fans had gathered, yellow smoke rising around the ground, motorbikes revving as they circled the stadium, scarves whirling, flags waving. A banner had been hung across the street. “Our history, our dream, our moment,” it said. This was huge, Villarreal’s fifth European semi-final. The previous four times they had fallen; none hurt more than against Arsenal in the 2006 Champions League. By the stadium, a banner said simply: “Vendetta.”

Inside the only fans were cardboard cutouts, revenge exacted silently. Swiftly, too. It took just five minutes for Villarreal to take the lead, the move building up the right, where many more would build. Juan Foyth, repeatedly allowed to step forward, found Samu Chukwueze who ran at Granit Xhaka, a weak link identified and exploited early. The ball slipped free and Manu Trigueros hit it hard and low into the far corner.

Ceballos had been weak as Chukwueze approached, but it was the midfielder who most sought to get Arsenal back into the game, requesting the ball and the responsibility, playing passes and then calling to receive them again. He looked to involve Martin Ødegaard too and slowly the visitors took a foothold. The problem was, it was no more than that. Shots from Bukayo Saka and Thomas Partey sailed well over the bar while Rob Holding headed wide, Gerónimo Rulli an untroubled figure.

Meanwhile, Pau Torres stepped out smoothy, Gerard Moreno dropped to link and Dani Parejo started to dictate the tempo, slowing down and then suddenly releasing teammates on either side. One pass set Alfonso Pedraza away to win the corner that doubled their lead. Although he was denied as he dashed into the area, Parejo took the corner, which Moreno headed on. At the far post, Raúl Albiol volleyed in the second.

This seemed beyond Arsenal already, not so much bad as just nothing really. Momentarily, they thought they had a penalty when a sudden break ended with Foyth tripping Pépé, but he had controlled with his hand. And Villarreal might have had more too, Moreno slipping as he went round Leno and slicing another effort wide as it opened up before him.

Half-time brought a change in personnel and, it briefly seemed, in approach. Emery removed Paco Alcácer, a striker, and replaced him with Francis Coquelin, leaving Moreno alone up front. If that invited pressure, Arsenal were inclined to accept. Yet while they took a step forward, pressing higher, Villarreal lined up more men before them and they still had not produced a shot on target when that very impetus cost them, Ceballos receiving a second yellow card for treading on Parejo.

Here was an opportunity for Villarreal, Chukwueze slipping in Trigueros and then firing off a shot that Leno pushed away. Coquelin then played in Moreno, whose shot was saved by Leno. Soon after, Leno saved from him again, this time after Chukwueze ran at Xhaka once more. Arsenal were on the edge, if not yet over it. And then, suddenly, there was a lifeline.

Saka was the one who reached for it, in every sense, targeting a tumble over Trigueros that had Artur Dias pointing to the spot again. This time, there was no turning back and Pépé scored the penalty. Villarreal may reflect that they had protected rather than pushed, and now they had been punished, not long after, they too were down to 10 men, Étienne Capoue sent off and carried off after a challenge on Saka, the tie left in the balance.

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