We booked our place in the final of the Europa League on Thursday night with a thrilling 7-3 aggregate win over Valencia.
It’s one of Spain’s oldest stadiums, and the famous old venue was rocking for this last stop on the road to Baku, but it was to the sound of the travelling Arsenal fans. Unai Emery – who spent four years as manager here – spoke about the ‘special’ qualities of the venue in his pre-match press conference, while Shkodran Mustafi was also telling his team-mates about what to expect of his former home during training on Wednesday night.
The atmosphere was intimidating from the moment the team coach rolled into town more than an hour before kick-off, and the noise reached a new crescendo once Kevin Gameiro opened the scoring.
There’s no doubt we were under huge pressure at that point – the only way to quieten the locals was to score. The manner and quality of Aubameyang’s first goal stunned the home fans, and proved to be a turning point.
After they briefly threatened a comeback in the second half, our third goal was the signal for some of the Valencia faithful to leave, prompting chants of ‘adios’ from the 2,000-strong Arsenal contingent, which was now making all the noise in the stadium.
And by the time Auba completed his hat-trick, the home fans were applauding a superb performance from a visiting player, that this stadium has rarely seen the like of.
AUBA’S INCREDIBLE NIGHT
His goal at the end of the first leg felt important at the time, but in the end it was just a taster of what was to come in Spain. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s first hat-trick for the Gunners could barely have come at a better time. His first goal here crucial, in that it completely changed the momentum from the opening 15 minutes. 1-0 down, looking second best in most departments, and one goal away from going out, we needed our big players to step up. That’s exactly what Aubameyang did, and his opener was superbly executed. Racing onto Alexandre Lacazette’s flick on from Petr Cech’s long clearance, he took one touch to control with his chest, then lashed a volley past goalkeeper Neto from the edge of the box with the outside of his right boot.
The goal breathed new life into the team, but also served to galvanise Auba himself. He was full of running after that, and nearly set up Alexandre Lacazette for a second after a blistering run on the right wing. His tracking back was impressive too, winning back possession five times in the 90 minutes.
In fact he played a part in the second goal too, dispossessing Jose Gaya outside the box, finding Lucas Torreira to set up Lacazette.
From then on it was all about him, sliding home at the near post from Ainsley Maitland-Niles’ low cross. Then he completed his treble with a fantastic near post finish late on. It was his 29th strike of a fantastic season, that could yet end up with silverware.
But it wasn’t all about Auba. His strike partner Alexandre Lacazette also played his part in a fantastic attacking display away from home.
The two have now scored a combined 48 goals this season, and excluding own goals, 11 of our last 12 Europa League goals have seen the duo involved (four goals and one assist for Lacazette and six goals and two assists for Aubameyang).
And what makes the combination even more dangerous is the link-up between them. Two top-class individual centre forwards are combining to produce even more than the sum of their parts in a highly effective partnership, which could take some stopping in Baku in the final.