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African All Stars

Were Villarreal stronger without Chukwueze after Arsenal injury?

10:23 AM WAT 07/05/2021
Samuel Chukwueze of Villarreal, Emile Smith Rowe of Arsenal
The wideman could have made things worse for a tedious home side that did little to turn the tie around at the Emirates Stadium on Thursday

Unai Emery was likely troubled about his team’s chances immediately after Samuel Chukwueze went down strangely after half an hour against the coach's former side Arsenal on Thursday night.

While that fear would surely have been enhanced had Gerard Moreno — Villarreal’s top player for goal contributions — been the one to go off, Chukwueze’s form in recent weeks had eased the Yellow Submarine of their dependency on the Spain attacker.

Having struggled for direct goal involvements all season, the winger’s upswing in recent weeks had seen him score or assist five times in six games before Thursday’s Europa League semi-final second leg at the Emirates Stadium.

Admittedly, the Nigeria star wasn’t going to have a comfortable outing on the right flank as he did in the first leg, where he torched makeshift left-back Granit Xhaka, but the early withdrawal deprived observers of an entertaining battle down that side with the returning Kieran Tierney.

Replacing the West African was teenager Yeremi Pino who scored the winner in a rather poor showing against Getafe at the weekend.

As it turned out, the young forward, replaced in second-half stoppage time, put in a strong shift, as the situation was probably a blessing in disguise for Emery on the night even though fears will grow over the severity of the incumbent’s injury.

Despite losing Chukwueze’s direct running and recent final third upturn in North London, Pino’s industrious showing was matched with his care in possession, which isn’t the Nigerian’s strongest attribute. The 18-year-old lost possession six times in 59 minutes, twice more than the man he replaced, despite playing for longer at the Emirates.

In addition, the teenager made three interceptions, attempted two tackles and won four fouls on the night.

While the latter is Chukwueze’s bread and butter, there are reservations about his diligence out of possession, an attribute that was needed against Arsenal who pushed for the goal they needed to progress to another final.

The Super Eagle made one tackle before his early withdrawal in London and, while the situation of the game meant the need for a defensive shift was greater after half-time with Pino on the pitch, last week’s first-leg highlighted the forward’s weakness in that area.

He attempted two tackles at El Madrigal and made no interceptions in 90 minutes, even as Arsenal turned up the intensity after the break. His tendency to be less conservative in possession saw him lose the ball 15 times in the 2-1 win, resulting in several turnovers against his team.

While his untimely injury meant they lost out on the African’s threat going forward, the flow of the game on Thursday night proved Emery needed players to put in the hard yards across the pitch.

This is further substantiated by Pino and Chukwueze’s heatmaps on the night, with the former dropping deeper to help 30-year-old right-back, Mario Gaspar, who was making his first start in the competition having replaced the injured Juan Foyth in the team.

That was the trade-off for Villarreal on the night and it was enough to see them play out a goalless encounter against a side that mustered little throughout 90 minutes. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang went close twice, in fairness, but he hit the post with his well-taken effort in the opening half and header after the break from Hector Bellerin’s cross.

In truth, it would have been harsh on the Yellow Submarine if the dull London side went through despite lacking ideas in the final third for the majority of the tie, and Emery now has to prepare his side for their first European final in the club’s history against Manchester United this month.

“I'm very proud because it's very important for us and Arsenal are a very good team. We deserved it. Today we worked very well, defended very well and sometimes with the possession we controlled the match and had some options in attack to score goals,” the Villarreal boss remarked after the win over his old side. “They had the best chances to score. We will enjoy this moment and then we prepare the match against Manchester United.

“We deserve to play this final and we will show our best performance and show we want to fight against Manchester United for this title.”

The Spanish side are the 61st club to reach the final of the Uefa Cup/Europa League and their joy is heightened by the fact they’ve now ended a run of four semi-final defeats in Europe.

Winning the competition, light-heartedly dubbed the ‘Unai Emery League’ owing to the Spanish manager’s previous success, guarantees them a place in next season’s Champions League, thus reducing the disappointment of not making the top four domestically.

Villarreal’s job is far from done and, despite requiring something different on Thursday, Emery will hope Chukwueze’s fit in time to play the competition’s favourites as he hopes to claim a fourth EL title and aid the Spanish side’s return to Europe’s premier competition for the first time since 2011.