|Arsenal players take the knee before their Europa League success against Slavia Prague with Alexandre Lacazette kneeling right before the home side. (Photo credit: Sky Sports)|
Was it ever in doubt? Maybe but Arsenal made light work of their opponents in the Europa League on Thursday night to keep alive the possibility of an all English club final at the end of May.
Arsenal comfortably saw off Slavia Prague to set up a reunion with Unai Emery’s Villarreal in the Europa League semi-finals.
When Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang was ruled out of Arsenal’s Premier League match with Sheffield United owing to illness, not everyone was buying it. Speculation among fans on social media suggested he might simply have been left out, or worse still, had fallen out with the manager Mikel Arteta. After the club’s experience with Mesut Ozil, there is a degree of paranoia about the prospect of Arsenal ending up with another highly-paid player frozen out of the squad.
As Arsenal kicked off against Slavia Prague, however, Aubameyang took to Instagram to reveal he is in hospital receiving treatment for malaria. That should hopefully silence any further conspiracy theories. It was a reminder too that footballers are not insulated by their wealth — they, like everybody else, have personal matters to contend with.
Aubameyang said he contracted the illness while on international duty with Gabon. Arsenal have had experience with malaria before — Kolo Toure suffered with it after a trip to the Ivory Coast in 2008. If Aubameyang is being treated with anti-malarial drugs, it would be reasonable to expect him to miss at least a week’s training. The Arsenal captain has vowed he will be “back stronger than ever soon”.
“He’s home. He had two days in hospital to get the right treatment, but he’s feeling good now,” said Arteta after the match. “He will need a few days to recover, but he wants to be back as soon as possible.”
A motivated team
It did not escape attention at Arsenal that Slavia Prague defender Ondrej Kudela had been found guilty of racially abusing former Gunner Glen Kamara. Slavia’s strenuous denials through the UEFA disciplinary process would also have been noted.
Before kick-off, the Slavia Prague team stood, arms linked, on the edge of the center circle. The Arsenal team chose to take a knee. Their captain on the night, Lacazette, broke away from his teammates to kneel just a few feet away from Arsenal’s opponents.
Arsenal, Europa League
It was a statement of intent, a demonstration of Arsenal’s stance against racism.
“They asked me and the club to take that initiative,” said Arteta. “They had the right reasons for that, the club was supportive. I think it was a great gesture.”
That Arsenal’s three-goal scorers were black symbolized their message of equality and opportunity. It was notable too that Lacazette celebrated his excellent second goal with a raised fist.
Hale End boys show their mettle
When Saka and Emile Smith Rowe combine, good things happen. While Lacazette’s two goals were a major contribution from a senior player, this victory also owed plenty to the squad’s younger contingent.
In the first leg, Saka regularly got in behind the opposition full-back but was not clinical enough to make Prague pay. This time, he had the cool head required to punish any defensive lapse. Smith Rowe, meanwhile, looked an ideal foil for Lacazette due to his willingness to run beyond the striker.
It was also a boost to see Folarin Balogun given an opportunity from the bench. The young striker is expected to sign a new four-year deal with the club soon.
Coping without Tierney
Arteta kept the same back four who had ended the long wait for a clean sheet against Sheffield United. That meant persisting with a central defensive pairing of Rob Holding and Pablo Mari, who have now won five of their six games together.
Calum Chambers played at right-back. Although he has played in four of the last five Premier League games, his selection for this crucial fixture was effectively a promotion. The manner in which he broke forward to create Saka’s goal suggested a player growing in confidence.
Arsenal, Calum Chambers
On the left-hand side, Arteta stuck with Granit Xhaka, with Dani Ceballos drifting wide to support the Swiss international. When Arsenal lost Kieran Tierney to injury, it was a considerable blow — the Scotsman’s driving runs and swinging crosses have been integral to their approach. However, there are now signs Arsenal are adapting to playing without him. Xhaka’s ball to release Pepe down the left-hand side in the build-up to Arsenal’s fourth goal showed there is a degree of variety in how Arsenal attack that flank.
Until now, Pepe has suffered the misfortune of some of his finest moments in an Arsenal shirt being overshadowed by disappointment. For example, he scored an outstanding goal at Brighton last season, only for the team to lose the game. In the first leg of this tie, he broke the deadlock only for Arsenal to concede a late equalizer.
This time, at last, his contribution will be savored. He showed excellent footwork and composure to open the scoring, before setting up Lacazette for the fourth. No player in the competition has been involved in more Europa League goals than Nicolas Pepe (nine — five goals, four assists). Over the last two seasons, Pepe now has 12 Europa League goal involvements — a tally matched only by Saka.