Villarreal v Arsenal: Dignified Emery can have his revenge

Arsenal face a familiar foe on Thursday when they take on Villarreal in the first leg of their Europa League semi-final, and Kevin Hatchard doesn't think they'll enjoy the experience.

Coach and club with points to prove

It's the kind of script that would be rejected as being too fanciful and schmaltzy if it were proposed as a film, but football has a way of throwing up dramatic storylines. Unai Emery will face the club that brutally jettisoned him less than two years into his reign, while Villarreal take on an outfit that denied them a place in the Champions League final 15 years ago. Juan Roman Riquelme's parried penalty at the death, with a final in Paris on the line, has left an indelible mark on the Spanish club's history.

Emery could be forgiven for harbouring some resentment towards Arsenal. He took the Gunners to a Europa League final, and narrowly missed out on a Champions League spot in his first campaign. His second term started poorly, and he was sacked in November 2019. At least publicly, he is full of praise for his former players, and speaks warmly about his eventual successor Mikel Arteta. Derided and lampooned in England, he has remained a gentleman to the last.

Emery now stands at the gates of yet another Europa League final (he won the UEL three times with Sevilla), with Arsenal barring the way. His team has won all but one of their Europa League matches this season, and in the knockout rounds his side has beaten Salzburg, Dynamo Kyiv and Tottenham's conquerors Dinamo Zagreb home and away.

However, the poor domestic form can't be ignored. The Yellow Submarine has certainly submerged, with just four wins from the last 15 La Liga games. VCF are still in with a shot of making the top six, but the race is tight.

Gunners' season hangs in the balance

Arsenal showed admirable quality and determination is Prague earlier this month, as they blew Slavia Prague away with a 4-0 win to reach the semi-finals. Since then, they have scraped a draw with lowly Fulham and lost at Everton in the Premier League, and it's that inconsistency that continues to dog the Gunners. Every time it seems as thought Mikel Arteta's team has clicked, they turn in a poor performance.

That sense of inertia would be blown away if Arteta can add the Europa League trophy to the FA Cup he won last season, and although winning a major European title should be a delight in itself, the Champions League ticket that comes attached would transform the club's outlook. One of the most embarrasing things about the recent Super League dalliance is that most of the clubs involved were UCL regulars, but Arsenal were the team on the outside looking in, nose firmly pressed against the glass.

In an incredibly expensive stadium with incredibly expensive tickets, Arsenal have become the poor relations in Europe.

This is Arsenal's biggest test of the tournament. They came through a weak group, squeezed past Benfica, wobbled against Olympiakos and then demolished Slavia. Now they face a Europa League specialist that values this trophy above all else, and they go into the first leg off the back of a run of two wins in eight.

Injuries and illness have bitten hard. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alex Lacazette are both back in training but are short of full fitness, while at the other end of the pitchy, Kieran Tierney and David Luiz have only just returned to training and are aiming to prove they're in the right condition to play.

Villarreal are rightful favourites

Villarreal have been outstanding in this competition, and although their domestic form is a concern, there's no doubt they have saved their best football for this competition. They have quality throughout the team: centre-backs Pau Torres and Raul Albiol are solid, midfielder Dani Parejo can be a lovely player to watch, winger Samuel Chukwueze has set up three goals in eight UEL games, and Spain striker Gerard Moreno is in the form of his life. Moreno has scored 20 goals in La Liga, and six in the UEL in just nine games.

You can back Villarreal Double Chance and Over 1.5 Goals at 1.8 on the Sportsbook's Bet Builder, and I think that's a sensible play. It has paid out in ten of Villarreal's 12 UEL games.

Moreno to extend scoring streak

Regular readers will know I successfully backed Gerard Moreno to score in both legs of the quarter-final, and I see no reason not to back him here at 2.5 on the Sportsbook. He has found the net in seven of his last ten outings.

On the Arsenal side of things, consider Nicolas Pepe at 11/4. The Ivorian seems to reserve his best performances for this competition, and scored in both legs of the quarter-final.

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