Unai Emery far beyond forgiven by Valencia ahead of Arsenal clash

A notorious night at the Mestalla in 2014 still lingers with Valencianistas as they bid to turn Emery's Arsenal team over in Europa League semi-finals

VALENCIA, SPAIN - SEPTEMBER 22:  Head coach Unai Emery of Sevilla FC gives instructions during the La Liga match between Valencia CF and Sevilla FC at Estadio Mestalla on September 22, 2013 in Valencia, Spain.  (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)
Powered by automated translation

Five years on, among a core of Valencianistas, a grudge lingers. Unai Emery, a long-time resident of Valencia, and the club’s longest-serving manager in a chop-and-change era, made enemies of many former admirers one notorious night at the Mestalla and has still not been forgiven.

It was a night much like Thursday: a semi-final of the Europa League, at the beginning of May. Emery’s then club, Sevilla went to the place where he had made his name as an elite coach and had favourable prospects of progress. They brought with them a 2-0 lead from the first leg.

But they defended it poorly, 3-0 down after 69 intense minutes. By the 90th, no relief. Come the 94th, Valencia supporters were roaring on a famous comeback. There was just time for Sevilla to try one last assault, via a throw-in from the right touchline.

Emery gestured frantically. He had worked hard on the drill in these circumstances, cultivated the midfielder Coke’s long throws. His tallest men from the back assembled in anticipation, and via a Federico Fazio flick-on, Stephane Mbia rose highest to stun the Mestalla with a headed goal. At the limit of stoppage time, Sevilla had made the final, via away goals.

Cue pandemonium, and a wild celebration that aggravated local wounds, Emery setting off like an express train with no brakes along the side of the pitch. “A lack of respect,” loyalists called it. From the stands and around the stadium exits, Valencia fans shouted much worse. “It was a natural reaction,” he explained, without apology, “if you haven’t experienced a moment like that, you can’t understand.”

Those words would resonate all the more once that dramatic 2014 semi-final turned out to herald more episodes for ecstatic celebration. That was the year the three-year Sevilla monopoly on the Europa League title began, Emery in charge of all of them. It was the start of Emery’s knockout knowhow becoming his brand and the specific expertise that Arsenal, whom he guides into Thursday’s Europa League semi-final first leg against Valencia in London, trust can turn his first season in charge at the Emirates into a success.

Emery says he does not dwell on the past, a wise approach given how dominated Arsenal’s past is by his predecessor, Arsene Wenger, and given that his career ambitions now extend beyond the Europa League, to a future where he takes Arsenal regularly into the Champions League via a top-four domestic placing. That plan has wobbled alarmingly in the last two weeks, with three losses plunging the club to fifth in the Premier League.

Emery may feel reluctant to look back on the past, but he confronts it squarely now. His Valencia period shaped him as a coach. He arrived there in the summer of 2008, a precocious 36 year old, taking over a dressing-room where some forceful personalities measured the new manager’s scant experience of elite competition unfavourably against their own. Some players had been there since the heady days of Liga titles in 2002 and 2004, the 2004 Uefa Cup triumph and even the Champions League finals of 2000 and 2001.

Emery had clashes, notably with the former Real Madrid midfielder Ivan Helguera, but would depart Valencia having advanced the careers of the likes of David Villa, David Silva and Juan Mata, and with an audit of achievement he would look back on proudly.

“With Valencia, we set the bar high,” Emery later reflected, citing, in his typically rigorous way, the numbers. “In my first 125 games as coach, we had been in the Champions League places for 101 of them.” Like Arsenal now, Valencia’s priority was finishing in the top four, and collecting the Uefa income the Champions League carries.

At Valencia, Emery brought stability to a club prone to skittishness, and he set down roots in the city. He could return there to warm welcomes - until the ostentatious celebration at the end of that epic semi-final diminished the respect.

Supporters who were there on May 1, 2014 will reference that in chants on Thursday. Dani Parejo and Jose Gaya, players on the losing, heartbroken side, will recall it vividly. Parejo has been at the club long enough to remember working with Emery, although not in the trusted role he now enjoys as captain and master engineer of the counter-attacking style the current Valencia have developed.

It’s a style that might just be right to unpick an Arsenal who have shipped three goals in each of their last three Premier League outings. Emery knows he must reverse that slide. He would be wise to celebrate discreetly if he does.