Villarreal v Arsenal: Europa League specialist Unai Emery has former club in his sights

Spaniard will be looking to maintain his phenomenal record in European club football’s secondary competition

It is a romance that never seems to dim. You can move Unai Emery from big cities to small towns, from one country to another, and wherever he is, Europa League form will flourish.

Another final in the competition, which would be his fifth, is 180 minutes away. He only needs to deal with any difficulties put his way by a potentially troublesome Ex.

In most respects, Villarreal, the club from a town of just over 50,000 inhabitants, are the oddball member of the last four of European club football’s secondary competition.

The minnows alongside Manchester United, Roma and an Arsenal whom Emery’s Villarreal host in the first leg of the semi-final in Spain on Thursday. But in this environment, the record of their manager gives them a heavyweight’s confidence.

The last time Emery suffered defeat in a two-legged Europa League tie was nine years ago, when Atletico Madrid beat his Valencia 5-3 on aggregate on the way to winning the competition. There have been five Emery Europa League campaigns since, including the uniquely unstoppable Sevilla’s run, between 2013 and 2016.

Sevilla, twice Uefa Cup winners when the tournament had its previous name, in 2006 and 2007, had a special relationship with the trophy before they hired Emery as manager. Under him the Cup practically became welded into the club’s trophy room.

Benfica were beaten in the 2014 final, it was defended against Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk the following year, and from 1-0 down against Liverpool in the 2016 final, Emery’s specialists came back to win 3-1 to complete their back-to-back hat-trick of titles.

It was that pedigree in Europe that chiefly recommended him to Paris Saint-Germain, where he spent two mixed years.

Failure to win Ligue 1 marked him out as an exception: his first season in France was the one season of the last eight when PSG did not finish as champions. He would correct that blip in 2017-18, but the Champions League showed him none of the kindness that the Europa League almost always does.

Emery was the unfortunate PSG coach on the wild night at Camp Nou when the French club’s 4-0 first-leg advantage was overturned by a 6-1 Barcelona victory.

Arsenal player ratings in 4-0 win at Slavia Prague

At Arsenal, who appointed him manager in the summer of 2018, Emery confronted perhaps the most imposing legacy possible. His predecessor, Arsene Wenger had been in the job, expanding its remit to all corners of the club, for 22 years.

Emery lasted 18 months, his high points concentrated into his favourite competition, the Europa League where he led Arsenal to the final, via some memorable knockout nights, notably against Valencia and Napoli.

But for once, his favourite competition had a sad ending: Chelsea 4 Arsenal 1 in a final a long way from home, in Baku, Azerbaijan in 2019.

In the lead-up to what might have been a glorious climax to his first season in English football, Emery had also seen Arsenal slip in the pursuit of a top four Premier League place. They dropped points carelessly in between the Europa League quarter- and semi-finals, finishing a point shy of fourth and their desired Champions League berth.

It meant Emery would once more be embarking on a Europa League campaign the following season. It was curtailed when he was sacked after a defeat to Eintracht Frankfurt in the group phase. The Arsenal chapter of his career had ended, as he put it, “not in the way I wanted.”

He was generous enough to speak to his successor, Mikel Arteta, after he had gone and Arteta appreciated the advice he heard. “He was really helpful,” Arteta recalled yesterday, “and he’s a really experienced and successful manager.”

Some of the younger players whose careers at Arsenal advanced under Emery remain grateful for the push and guidance he gave them, not least Bukayo Saka, who made his senior Arsenal debut as 17-year-old under Emery.

At Villarreal, where Emery took over last summer, more young players have been blooded. The challenge has been consistency. A top four finish in La Liga looked viable through the first half of the season, but amid symptoms of fatigue, that possibility has faded. Villarreal are seventh in the table, and the weekend loss, 2-1, to Barcelona was the third defeat in four domestic fixtures.

Naturally, this being an Emery team, Europa League form is almost perfect. All six legs in the knockout phase have been wins; in the group phase Villarreal collected 16 points from their possible 18. As Arsenal know, this is a coach who in this competition tends to maintain winning momentum.

Published: April 29, 2021 06:50 AM

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