Villarreal 2 Arsenal 1: Pepe spot-kick gives Gunners hope after Spaniards hit double and Ceballos sees red

UNAI EMERY never made any secret of the fact that he did not want Nicolas Pepe to become Arsenal’s record signing.

But last night the £72million winger made an emphatic point to his former manager who confessed that Wilfried Zaha was always his top target.

Because it was Pepe’s nerveless 73rd minute penalty which provided Arsenal with the away goal they needed to keep this Europa League semi-final alive.

It was the Gunners only shot on target all night but that won’t bother Mikel Arteta a jot after staring down the torpedo barrel of the Yellow Submarine.

Emery has had to wait a full 17 months to get his own back on the team who packed it in during his brief time as Arsenal manager.

But now the man who was ruthlessly sacked to make way for Arteta will have to put his plans for a fifth Europa League final on hold.

Yet it is safe to say that all those players who were mocking Emery behind his back during the last knockings of his Emirates tenure are not laughing now.

Because for much of this match they were put through the wringer by a Villarreal team who appeared to have broken the back of this tie with first-half goals from Manu Trigueros and Raul Albiol.

Their prospects looked even dimmer when Danio Ceballos was dismissed for a second yellow card which will rule him out of next week’s return leg at the Emirates.

But just when it appeared that all hope was gone, they were handed a late lifeline when Bukayo Saka was brought down by Trigueros and Pepe drilled his spot kick straight down the middle.

The problem with this Arsenal team is that you never know what you are going to get from one week to the next.

Absolutely no-one saw that 4-0 win coming in their last Europa League outing away to Slavia Prague 

But they immediately undid all that good work by taking just a single point from their next two games at home to Fulham and Everton.

That 1-0 defeat by Carlo Ancelotti’s team took place against a backdrop of angry fan protests against owner Stan Kroenke and the decision to sign up for the European Super League.

And no-one has been more vociferous in their criticism of the failed breakaway than Villarreal president Fernando Roig Alonso.

Little wonder, then, that the Spaniards were so keen to make a point against the team who knocked them out in the Champions League semi-finals in 2006 and in the quarter-finals of the same competition three years later.

Arsene Wenger famously did a little touchline jig after that most recent meeting but there has been precious little for either of his Arsenal successors to get excited about.

They kicked off this match with 78 games apiece under their belts as Arsenal boss.

And the fact that Emery’s win ratio was slightly higher than that of his replacement is proving to be a real cause for concern in the Emirates corridors of power.

But if Arteta was feeling the heat he certainly wasn’t showing it as he went all Pep Guardiola by starting without a recognised striker.

So it was left to ‘Croydon de Bruyne’ Emile Smith Rowe to carry the Arsenal threat in an unfamiliar false nine role.

But he had barely kicked the ball before Arsenal found themselves chasing the game.

Emery had clearly identified stand-in left-back Granit Xhaka as a potential Arsenal weakness and ordered winger Samuel Chukwueze to run at his man whenever possible.

And it took the Nigerian international just five minutes to squeeze between Xhaka and Ceballos to set up Trigueros for a low shot which Bernd Leno was unable to keep out.

It was the worst possible start for a team as short on confidence as these Gunners and worse was to follow when they fell further behind on the half hour.

Daniel Parejo’s corner was flicked on by Gerard Moreno for the veteran Spanish international Albiol to volley in unchallenged at the back post.

Pepe thought he had dragged the visitors back into the game when he was tripped just inside the area by Juan Foyth.

But the 34th minute penalty was overturned when VAR spotted that Pepe had used an outstretched arm to control the ball before drawing the foul from the on-loan Spurs defender.

Moreno could have put the tie to bed when he poked the ball past the advancing Leno just before the half-time but ran out of space before he could squeeze his shot in from the tightest of angles.

And any idea of an Arsenal fightback appeared to have been ended when Ceballos was dismissed for a 57th minute foul on Parejo following an earlier booking for a trip on Foyth.

But Villarreal could not make the most of their numerical advantage before former Spurs and Watford midfielder Etienne Capoue was also sent-off for two bookable offences and now it is all to play at the Emirates next Thursday.

Good evening Unai? It could have been a hell of a lot better.

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