Harry Maguire is feeling optimistic about his chances of being fit for the Europa League final, according to Manchester United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.

Maguire suffered ankle ligament damage in an awkward collision with Anwar El Ghazi during the 3-1 win over Aston Villa on May 9 and subsequently had to be withdrawn.

It was an unusual situation for United and Maguire to find themselves in, as the centre-back had played in every minute of 71 consecutive league games for the Red Devils – and in his final five for Leicester City before moving two years ago – until that injury.

In fact, Maguire has played for 9,615 minutes in all competitions since the start of 2019-20. Prior to the defeat to Liverpool on Thursday, that was almost 1,000 more than any other player across the top five leagues.

That loss to the Reds came just two days after losing to Leicester, meaning United have been beaten in both games without their captain and Solskjaer was quick to accept that he will surely not play again in the Premier League this term.

Given United are already guaranteed to finish in the top four, their focus is now on facing Villarreal in the Europa League final on May 26, with Solskjaer hoping to end his wait for silverware at the club.

The manager offered an update on Sunday, insisting United will take no chances with Maguire's fitness.

"He's making progress," Solskjaer told reporters. "When I spoke to him this morning he was quite positive but, naturally, the day after it happened we were all down.

"We saw early on, or we decided that we have to focus, we have to be positive, and think that you're going make it until you have to say 'no'. I've always been an optimist, so we're positive.

"But we've consciously taken the route of not testing him out too early, too quickly, because we don't want to aggravate something. He wants this so much, so he doesn't want to take any risks, either.

"Hopefully we can have good news early, but I'll give Harry as long as it takes, because of course he has shown his importance.

"Hopefully he'll speed up the recovery and be ready for the final, but I'll give him as long as he needs, until he says 'yes' or 'no'."

Although Solskjaer needs no convincing of Maguire's influence, fans and pundits have not always been so kind about him considering United made him the world's most expensive defender when they bought him in 2019.

Maguire has missed 12 games for United in all competitions, most of them in the domestic cups, so comparing them directly with and without their captain is a pretty redundant exercise.

Examining his individual numbers offers a broader picture of his influence, though. He has helped United to 42 clean sheets in all competitions since joining, the most of any defender across Europe's top five leagues prior to the Liverpool loss. He was also directly responsible for by far the most clearances (391), headed clearances (244), duels won (645) and aerials won (432) over that same period.

Unquestionably a good stopper, he has also proved suitably adept with the ball. Maguire has made 6,152 successful passes in his United career, again the most of any defender in those top European leagues over the aforementioned period. Of those passes, 2,142 have been completed in the opponent's half, which is the best figure for any nominal centre-back.

Maguire can also claim to have had as much of an influence on United's patterns of play as any Solskjaer signing – barring Bruno Fernandes, of course.

In the Premier League this season, Maguire has started 24 open-play sequences that have ended in a shot, which again was the highest number among the division's centre-backs until his injury.

Maguire has not only made United's defence more resolute; he has directly impacted their use of the ball. His absence has already been keenly felt, but at least the United captain might start to be acknowledged as one of the most influential players in England – not that it was ever in doubt for Solskjaer.

"We've known it [his importance] all along, of course. But maybe some people open their eyes when he's not playing! I certainly felt I became a very, very good player when I was injured. People suddenly realised what I could do as a sub, or as a player," Solskjaer continued.

"Harry's been our leader, he's a captain. Ever since he's come in, he's been more or less ever-present, so of course he's a big miss at the moment."

Aymeric Laporte is set to represent Spain at Euro 2020 after switching his allegiance from France.

Manchester City centre-back Laporte has represented Les Bleus 51 times in total across the under-17 and under-21 age groups.

However, the 26-year-old was never handed his senior debut, despite being called up three times by Didier Deschamps.

Laporte came through the youth ranks at Athletic Bilbao and made 222 appearances for the Basque club until joining City in January 2018.

He was granted Spanish citizenship earlier this week and FIFA has confirmed he can play for Spain with "immediate effect".

A report by Marca earlier this week claimed Spain boss Luis Enrique lobbied the Royal Spanish Football Federation (RFEF) to look into the possibility of Laporte changing allegiance, so it feels safe to assume he will be a key part of the former Barcelona head coach's plans for Euro 2020.

But how does Laporte compare to Spain's other options at centre-back?

Regular game time

Despite scoring the winner in last month's EFL Cup final against Tottenham and collecting a third Premier League title in four seasons at City, it has been a mixed campaign for Laporte on a personal level.

He went into 2020-21 as Pep Guardiola's go-to centre-back but the arrival of Ruben Dias and John Stones' resurgence means he is no longer first choice at the Etihad Stadium.

Nevertheless, the packed schedule undertaken across all competitions by the Champions League finalists means he has still played 27 games, starting 24 and completing 2,250 minutes.

Of centre-backs used by Luis Enrique this season, that places Laporte third behind Villarreal's Pau Torres (41 games, 3,675 minutes) and Athletic's Inigo Martinez (32 games, 2,914).

Sergio Ramos, who is now widely expected to have a new centre-back partner for La Roja, has been restricted to 21 games and 1,790 minutes by injuries this season, while Diego Llorente (14 games, 1,160) was compromised by a serious groin injury after joining Leeds United.

One would-be international colleague Laporte knows very well is club team-mate Eric Garcia. The 20-year-old is set to leave City after declining to sign a new contract last term.

While running down the clock to his anticipated move to Barcelona, Garcia has become a marginal figure in Manchester, despite Guardiola continuing to profess his admiration of his talents.

His 10 appearances and eight starts amount to 693 minutes, not significantly more than 514 minutes across seven caps for Spain this season.

Indeed, Luis Enrique started Garcia in all three of the March internationals, suggesting his lack of club action is not overly hindering his case.

Keeping it tight in Manchester

City's defensive improvements have been central to their success this season and, although no longer an automatic selection, Laporte has more than played his part.

The 14 goals conceded with him on the field are just four more than Guardiola's side have let in amid Garcia's sporadic outings. Only Torres (13) has amassed more than his 12 clean sheets.

Laporte ranks well across all of the key defensive metrics this season, with 18 tackles placing him level with Ramos and Torres.

Martinez has made 24, while Marcelo Bielsa's famously intense style of play might be largely responsible for Llorente going into 31 tackles during his relatively smaller workload.

Laporte's duel success rate of 63.7 per cent is the best of the bunch, with Martinez contesting and winning the most overall (263 and 149), while Torres is out in front in terms of recoveries (232).

In the air and on the ground

Standing at 6ft 3ins, Laporte will provide the kind of imposing presence Spain have perhaps lacked.

He has contested 100 and won 69 aerials, similar numbers to the 103 and 62 returned by Torres, who is of similar stature. Martinez's 136 contested and 82 won again show the Athletic man getting through plenty of work.

Perhaps Laporte's most celebrated quality is his capacity to start moves from the back via his superb left foot.

Centre-backs completing a high proportion of their passes is not unusual, given the generally simple nature of them, but Laporte generally plays in a notably progressive manner.

He has made 244 passes into the final third this season, more than any of the Spain centre-backs mentioned (Torres 240, Martinez 235), a trait that is sure to be welcomed by the attacking talents in Luis Enrique's squad.

What does the future hold for Romelu Lukaku and Lautaro Martinez?

The pair helped Inter to their first Scudetto since 2009-10.

But both could depart San Siro as Inter look to cut costs.

 

TOP STORY – LUKAKU AND LAUTARO TO LEAVE INTER?

Inter could be forced to sell star forwards Romelu Lukaku and Lautaro Martinez, according to Corriere dello Sport.

Antonio Conte's Inter have been crowned Serie A champions this season, but the Nerazzurri have financial problems as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

Lukaku has been linked with former club Chelsea, Barcelona and Real Madrid, while team-mate Martinez has long been tipped to join Barca.

Alessandro Bastoni is also listed in the report amid links to Manchester City and Liverpool, while star full-back Achraf Hakimi is said to be of interest to Arsenal and Bayern Munich.

 

ROUND-UP

- The front page of Thursday's Mundo Deportivo reports Barca look at the idea of signing City's Sergio Aguero favourably. Aguero is out of contract at season's end and he has been linked with Inter, Chelsea, Paris Saint-Germain and Tottenham. But the Argentina star reportedly wants to play alongside countryman Lionel Messi. A move for Aguero would not prevent Barca from signing fellow free agent and Lyon captain Memphis Depay. Borussia Dortmund's Erling Haaland is also a target for the LaLiga giants. It comes amid doubts over the future of head coach Ronald Koeman.

Manchester United and Arsenal are battling to sign Sparta Prague sensation Abdallah Sima, claims the Mirror. Sima is reportedly valued at £25million (€29m).

- Sky Sports says United are interested in Juventus defender Cristian Romero, who could cost £34m (€40m). The 23-year-old Argentinian joined Atalanta on a two-year loan deal from Juve and the Serie A side have an option to buy Romero. United have also been linked with Sevilla's Jules Kounde, Lille defender Sven Botman, Villarreal centre-back Pau Torres and Real Madrid duo Sergio Ramos and Raphael Varane.

- Former Chelsea boss Frank Lampard could replace Roy Hodgson at Crystal Palace after emerging as a leading contender, according to the Daily Telegraph.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer does not expect Harry Maguire to feature in the Premier League again this season but remains hopeful he will be fit for the Europa League final.

United captain Maguire suffered ankle ligament damage when he collided with Anwar El Ghazi during a 3-1 win at Aston Villa last Sunday.

The England centre-back was at Old Trafford on crutches wearing a protective boot on his left foot for a 2-1 loss to Leicester City on Tuesday, a defeat that sealed the title for Manchester City.

Solskjaer thinks Maguire's top-flight campaign is over with three games to play, but is optimistic he will face Villarreal in Gdansk on May 26.

The United boss said on the eve of Thursday's Premier League encounter with Liverpool: "The good news was it wasn't broken. There was no fracture, but a ligament injury of course is serious as well.

"If I'm very positive - that's maybe stretching it - I'm hopeful that he might be ready for it [the Europa League final]. I don't think he'll play in the league again before [the end of the season]. We'll do everything we can to get him ready for the final."

Solskjaer said there should be no concerns that he might take a risk by playing Maguire with Euro 2020 on the horizon.

"You always try to look after players long-term. If he's fit, he'll play for us, if he's not he won't," said the former Norway striker.

"As I said, we're hopeful that he's ready. If he's ready for us, he'll probably be ready for the Euros. Norway are not in the Euros, so I'm not really that concerned [about the Euros]."

Solskjaer made 10 changes to his starting line-up for the defeat to the Foxes and will rotate again when they face Champions League hopefuls Liverpool, given United are amid a schedule of four games in the space of 10 days.

"There will be changes of course but many of the players that played tonight did really well so they're in contention as well," he added.

"It's about managing the squad now and building momentum, building confidence, making sure we get enough points to get second and then going into the final confident."

Villarreal head coach Unai Emery expressed his pride and satisfaction after exacting revenge on former club Arsenal as the Spanish side sensationally reached the Europa League final.

For the first time in Villarreal's history, they will contest a major European final following Thursday's goalless draw at Arsenal, which secured a 2-1 aggregate triumph.

Emery guided Arsenal to the Europa League final in 2019 before he was sacked by the Gunners in November that year, replaced by fellow Spaniard Mikel Arteta in London.

But Emery had the last laugh on Thursday after ending Villarreal's European drought – the Yellow Submarine had been eliminated in each of their previous four semi-finals, Europa League semis in 2004, 2011 and 2016 and the Champions League final four in 2006.

Mikel Arteta claimed he "always feels the pressure" as he seemingly conceded his position at Arsenal may well be under threat.

The Gunners slumped out of the Europa League at the semi-final stage on Thursday, with a goalless home draw against Villarreal confirming a 2-1 aggregate defeat to the Spanish side, coached by their former boss Unai Emery.

It is the first time Villarreal have reached a major final in their history, while Arsenal are now facing the likely prospect of missing out on Europe altogether next term.

The Gunners sit ninth in the Premier League with four games remaining, and had seemingly been banking on winning the Europa League – they would have faced Manchester United in the final – to qualify for the Champions League.

Should they fail to mount a late charge for European qualification via the league, next season will be the first since 1996-97 that the Gunners have not featured in a continental competition. 

Asked on BT Sport if he was feeling any pressure, Arteta replied: "I feel the pressure all the time because I want to do as well as I can for the team, for every supporter I have here and for the fans and today is a big disappointment, because we tried everything to win that game."

This term will be the first time Arsenal have not featured in the final of a competition since 2015-16, and Arteta was subsequently pressed on his future in his post-match news conference.

"We have to show that on the pitch. It is not about talking," he said when asked how Arsenal would prove to their fans they are making progress.

"We are hugely disappointed because we wanted to give them something special after the difficult season we've had.

"But when you play these knockout games, you need your best players at their best, and we didn't have enough of those in the best possible condition, and still we fought until the end and in the second half we deserved to win the game, 1-0, and we didn't do it.

"I think everybody's job is always under scrutiny.

"We are devastated, we had so much enthusiasm to be in that final. We know how much it meant to the club, our fans, ourselves, to have a chance to win a title and be in the Champions League next season. It's a huge blow."

When questioned if he still had faith in his own coaching ability, he abruptly responded: "Yes. I wouldn't be sitting here if I don't [think I could do it]. You will see it, it's not about talking, it's about showing it on the pitch."

Arsenal's plight was not helped by Granit Xhaka sustaining a knock in the warm-up – an injury which Arteta believes limited his team's performance in the first half.

"The night started in a difficult way, losing Granit in the warm-up and having to put in a player [Kieran Tierney] that hasn't featured in a long time, and I think in the first half we weren't good enough with the ball," he said.

"We couldn't get anything in the final third to dominate the game, have composure and a little bit of confidence. We changed it at half-time, we were much better, but in the defining moments we hit the post twice and missed an empty goal."

Despite Arteta's claims, Arsenal only managed two attempts on target, though Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang did hit the post twice, fewer than Villarreal managed (three).

Having progressed from each of their first six semi-finals in major European competition, Arsenal have now been eliminated from three of their four appearances at this stage in Europe since, with the only occasion they progressed coming in 2018-19.

Emery, who has now reached five Europa League finals, was in charge of the Gunners at the time, but his team were thrashed by Chelsea in the final.

Villarreal are on the verge of their first major trophy after a goalless draw with Arsenal sealed a 2-1 aggregate win and set up a Europa League final against Manchester United.

Beaten in both of their previous appearances in the Europa League semi-finals, Villarreal finally came good under three-time winner of the competition Unai Emery, who guided Arsenal to the final in 2019.

The Gunners lost to Chelsea two years ago and were denied the chance to tee up another all-English final as their former boss managed to see out the result.

It was not for a lack of trying, with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang hitting the post twice, though Mikel Arteta's team ultimately fell short at the penultimate hurdle.

Having finished the first leg on the ascendancy, Arsenal failed to pick up where they left off, and it took a Dani Parejo free-kick looping just over Bernd Leno's crossbar to spark them into life.

Aubameyang missed a late chance last week, and he was inches away from opening the scoring when his right-footed half-volley clipped the upright.

Villarreal suffered a blow moments later – Samuel Chukwueze having to be taken off on a stretcher after going down innocuously – with Geronimo Rulli almost spilling an Aubameyang shot over the line soon after.

Having failed to score in the first half for a sixth straight home game, Arsenal wasted no time in getting on the front foot after the break – Nicolas Pepe firing just wide.

Emile Smith Rowe went similarly close following another Rulli mistake, though Arsenal played their way into trouble at the other end and were fortunate Gerard Moreno's effort lacked power.

Aubameyang seemed all set to put Arsenal ahead on away goals when he leapt to meet Pepe's cross, only for his header to bounce agonisingly back off the post as – despite some more nervy goalkeeping from Rulli – Villarreal held firm to book their place in Gdansk. 

Unai Emery insists Arsenal remain the favourites to reach the Europa League final as he prepares to return to the Emirates Stadium with Villarreal.

Former Arsenal boss Emery holds a 2-1 lead over his old club in the semi-final tie going into Thursday's second leg.

Manu Trigueros and Raul Albiol had given Villarreal a two-goal lead in the first leg and the Gunners looked doomed when Dani Ceballos was sent off.

But a controversial penalty that was won by Bukayo Saka and scored by Nicolas Pepe ensures that it is all to play for in the return fixture.

Villarreal have progressed from 15 of their 16 two-legged ties in major European competition when winning the first leg.

But the only exception was against an English club at the same stage of the same competition - in a tie against Liverpool in 2016 - and Emery feels Arsenal are the most likely team to progress.

"The first-leg result doesn’t change my initial thoughts on the competition," Emery said at his pre-match news conference.

"Arsenal started as a favourite and they are still favourites at this stage. The first-leg result is too narrow to make a big difference.

"We have to try to compete with these types of teams.

"When I analyse our opponents, the first thing I do is study them and try to prepare to play against them at their best. 

"Arsenal are structurally solid, they can keep possession, combine well, and have quick and technically-gifted players.

"We are going to see Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, so we will face the best Arsenal side, both collectively and individually."

Gerard Moreno has either scored or assisted in each of his seven starts in the Europa League this season (six goals and three assists).

Arsenal, who are relying on the Europa League to salvage their campaign, know a place in next season's Champions League is the reward if they win the competition.

They have progressed from each of their last two European knockout ties where they lost the first leg.

And not since 1995-96 have Arsenal failed to qualify for European competition of some sort, with Mikel Arteta acknowledging the importance of keeping that run going in his own pre-match news conference.

While he thinks his side are underdogs, Emery is keen to highlight the significance of this accomplishment.

"It is a very beautiful moment for us," he said.

"We have been working throughout the year trying to build on our confidence, results and objectives, and in the Europa League we’ve had a fairly solid campaign so far.

"We are approaching the game in the same way we did the first leg. 

"We will build on our performance in the previous 90 minutes. We are 2-1 up, but that doesn’t change anything. We are going to try to be ready for whatever lies ahead."

Arsenal have lost just one of their 11 knockout games with Spanish opponents at home, with that loss coming against Barcelona in the Champions League last 16 in February 2016.

Mikel Arteta has urged his Arsenal players to ignore talk of a possible takeover at the club and "embrace the challenge" of overcoming Villarreal to reach the Europa League final.

The build-up to last week's 2-1 first-leg defeat in Spain was dominated by suggestions that Spotify CEO Daniel Ek is ready to buy out the Kroenke family.

The current owners have faced intense scrutiny in the wake of the Gunners' ill-fated involvement with the proposed European Super League, leading to a large protest two weeks ago.

Thierry Henry this week confirmed Ek has reached out to him, as well as fellow club legends Patrick Vieira and Dennis Bergkamp, to help with the takeover bid.

However, while talk of a possible new era for Arsenal continues off the field, Arteta is only concerned about what happens on it as his side prepare for Thursday's visit of Villarreal.

"We have to try to be away from all the rumours and everything that is happening around the club and focus on the pitch," Arteta said at a pre-match news conference on Wednesday.

"The best way to help the club is to win football matches and be competitive at the highest level."

More protests are expected at Emirates Stadium ahead of the Villarreal match and Arteta respects the fans' right to express their views.

"I think that they have to be able to do so," he said. "If it's done in a specific way, then they have the right to do it. We have to prepare for the game in the best possible way.

"I wouldn't like to use any excuses. I know that the only purpose of the fans is to defend the club and that they want the best for the team. We will try to do the same."

Nicolas Pepe's penalty, after Manu Trigueros and Raul Albiol had given Villarreal a two-goal lead in the first leg, ensures that it is all to play for in the return fixture.

Arsenal have progressed from each of their last two European knockout ties where they lost the first leg.

"We have to embrace the challenge, the opportunity we have ahead," Arteta said. "It is only the 10th time the club is in a European semi-final. We have to take the opportunity.

"It's a massive game for everybody but in particular for the club because we are representing the club and our fans and we want to do it in the best way by winning trophies.

"It's a big moment again. Not for me, but for the club and for everything that has happened in the last two years and the last months.

"So I think it will be really important and a big step forward if we are able to be in that final and have the opportunity to win that trophy."

Arsenal are relying on the Europa League to salvage their campaign, with a place in next season's Champions League their reward if they win the competition.

Not since 1995-96 have Arsenal failed to qualify for European competition of some sort, and Arteta has acknowledged the importance of keeping that run going.

"Not being in the Champions League is not something we want, but it's the reality. A lot of things have happened and the level has been raised to an unprecedented level," the Arsenal boss said.

"Nobody accepts the situation as it is. We want to change it straight away and this season we have the chance to change it [by winning the Europa League]."

Asked if this could be the last opportunity for the current group of players to win a trophy together, Arteta said: "I don't want to think like that.

"I want to think my players always have the hunger to win any competition. It's true for some players it might be the last season for different reasons.

"I can see how much it means for them and how much they want it."

Arsenal have lost just one of their 11 knockout games with Spanish opponents at home, with that loss coming against Barcelona in the Champions League last 16 in February 2016.

However, Villarreal have progressed from 15 of their 16 two-legged ties in major European competition when winning the first leg - the only exception being the 2016 Europa League semi-final when losing to Liverpool.

Arteta is monitoring the fitness of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Kieran Tierney, David Luiz and Alexandre Lacazette ahead of Thursday's second leg, while Dani Ceballos is suspended after being sent off in the reverse fixture.

Mikel Arteta believes Arsenal's dominant 2-0 win over Newcastle United was the perfect preparation for Thursday's Europa League semi-final second leg against Villarreal.

The Gunners suffered a 2-1 defeat in the first leg in Spain on Thursday, but they returned to winning ways against Steve Bruce's side at St James' Park.

Mohamed Elneny's first Premier League goal in his 66th appearance in the competition got them on their way after just five minutes, before Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang sealed a sixth consecutive win against the Magpies without conceding a goal.

Aubameyang's second-half goal meant he became the first Arsenal player to score in five consecutive matches against an opponent since Olivier Giroud netted in six straight games against Aston Villa between 2013 and 2016.

The only blot on the Gunners' copybook was a hamstring injury to David Luiz, which could keep the Brazilian out for the remainder of the season.

Arteta made nine changes to the side that lost in Spain and was pleased with his side's dominance, the Gunners taking 19 shots and restricting the hosts to just a single shot on target.

"Apart from David's injury, that was all we wanted," Arteta told a media conference.

"We wanted to keep the team fresh and pick players with the right attitude to play this game. The focus was on today. It was a strong performance from the beginning.

"We dominated the game and won the three points, which we needed. It helps for Thursday as well."

Aubameyang has now scored in all three of his appearances against Newcastle this season, becoming the first Arsenal player to score in three separate matches against an opponent in a single season since Alexis Sanchez against Hull City in 2014-15.

The Gabon international, who was recently struck down with malaria, came off the bench for the final five minutes against Villarreal in Spain and proved his fitness with an impressive display on Sunday.

"We thought he wasn't going to manage it on Thursday. Two days before, he was struggling," Arteta explained. "He could only manage to play 10 or 15 minutes.

"The day after, he started to feel better. It's good to see he was fine today. He scored a goal, he played well, so it's a real boost."

Gabriel Martinelli enjoyed an eventful game, laying on Aubameyang's goal with a fine cross and drawing a foul from Fabian Schar in the 90th minute which resulted in a red card for the Newcastle defender.

"Gabi's improving every week," Arteta said. "He's taking his minutes in the right way.

"He's developing in the way we all believe he can. Today he had an assist, some good moments on the left and we're trying to play him as a number nine as well."

Arsenal head coach Mikel Arteta has fiercely defended his team selection after his side's 2-1 Europa League semi-final first leg defeat away to Villarreal on Thursday.

Arteta fielded Swiss midfielder Granit Xhaka at left-back while he also started without a recognised striker, with Emile Smith Rowe in the most advanced role and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang coming off the bench.

The Gunners went behind 2-0 after half an hour and were reduced to 10 men after Dani Ceballos' 57th minute sending off.

But Arsenal pulled a goal back from Nicolas Pepe's 73rd minute spotkick after Bukayo Saka was tripped inside the box claiming a precious away goal.

"It's the way we prepared for the game," the Spaniard said at the post-game press conference about his selection decisions.

"It's the decision that I made, thinking that it was the best way to play, but the game was conditioned after four minutes so it was difficult to assess whether it would work or not.

"Conceding from the set piece as well also changed it and after, we had to approach it in a different way."

He added: "Obviously when you lose you always get [selection] wrong.

"When we won 4-0 away from home against Slavia Prague, they didn’t lose a home game in three years and Granit played so well, he was incredible playing there but I know that when it doesn’t happen, it’s always going to point there."

Arsenal will host Villarreal in London next Thursday with a spot in the decider on the line, against either Manchester United or Roma, with Arteta delighted with their away goal after their early deficit.

"It changes completely the tie obviously, and it makes a huge difference and we know that we have to be better than we were for 95 minutes," Arteta said.

"If we don’t do that then we won’t have the chance to be in the final."

He added: "After the story of the game, I think we have to take it because in the tie we are alive and in the circumstances that developed during the game, it put the game and the tie in real danger at some stages."

Mikel Arteta accepted a 2-1 defeat was the best outcome Arsenal could have hoped for after a performance of two vastly contrasting halves against Villarreal on Thursday.

The Spanish side will take a slender lead into the second leg of the Europa League semi-final next week, though the margin between the teams could have been far greater at the halfway stage of the contest.

Manu Trigueros and Raul Albiol scored as Unai Emery's side threatened to overrun his former employers in the first half, yet the Gunners came out a different side after the interval.

Despite the dismissal of Dani Ceballos, Bukayo Saka won a penalty that Nicolas Pepe converted to cut the deficit in the 73rd minute.

Villarreal then had Etienne Capoue dismissed before the returning Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang had a chance to equalise in added time, only to be denied by home goalkeeper Geronimo Rulli.

"We didn't want to come here and lose, but after the way the game developed, and being 2-0 down with 10 men, you have to take the result," Arteta told BT Sport.

"If you have to lose, this is the best result that we could have. But two different halves."

Asked what had led to the change in his team after the break, he replied: "We started to be us. In the first half, there were so many moments when we weren't us.

"We were disorganised, we started to chase, were not precise enough with the ball nor occupying the right spaces, we didn't have enough control.

"We didn't carry enough threat, or have the right desire to attack the opponents' box. In the second half it was completely different."

Arsenal were indebted to a fine save from goalkeeper Bernd Leno when the score was at 2-0, the German denying Gerard Moreno.

So, while Emery became the first ex-Arsenal boss to beat the Gunners since George Graham's Tottenham side won 2-1 at White Hart Lane in November 1999, the tie is firmly in the balance ahead of the second leg at Emirates Stadium.

Villarreal have progressed from 15 of their 16 two-legged ties in major European competitions when winning the first leg – the only exception coming in the 2015-16 Europa League semi-final, when they went out to Liverpool despite winning the first meeting.

On Leno's save from Moreno, Arteta said: "He was very good when we needed him at 2-0. The chance with Gerard is probably the biggest one they had.

"He saved us, but then at the end we had a big chance with Auba and we weren't able to get it in."

Unai Emery saw Villarreal claim a 2-1 advantage over former club Arsenal after an eventful first leg of their Europa League semi-final clash that saw both teams finish with 10 men.

Emery, who was dismissed by the Gunners in November 2019 after a poor run of form, watched on as Villarreal seized control thanks to first-half goals from Manu Trigueros and Raul Albiol.

Dani Ceballos' sending off only appeared to strengthen the hosts' hand, but Nicolas Pepe's spot-kick in the 73rd minute breathed fresh life into a contest that looked in danger of getting away from Mikel Arteta's team.

Former Tottenham midfielder Etienne Capoue then also saw red in a tie that is deliciously poised ahead of next week's return meeting.

Villarreal scored with the first effort of the game, Trigueros drilling home after Samuel Chukwueze's jinking run ended with the ball being tackled into his team-mate's path.

Shoddy Arsenal defending saw the lead doubled just prior to the half-hour mark when Gerard Moreno flicked on Dani Parejo's corner for Raul Albiol to volley home from close range.

Juan Foyth was excelling going forward but encountered problems against Pepe defensively and only a VAR check for handball in the build-up saved the defender from a penalty call going against him for a trip in the area.

Arsenal started the second half on the front foot but their outing worsened when Ceballos, already on a yellow card, was dismissed for a late challenge on Parejo.

Bernd Leno was called into action to deny the excellent Moreno and that moment proved even more pivotal when Trigueros clumsily tripped Bukayo Saka, Pepe's penalty sent down the middle and just past Geronimo Rulli.

There was even more room for optimism when Capoue hacked down Saka and was dismissed while leaving the field on a stretcher, but Villarreal clung on for a precious win despite returning captain Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang testing Rulli deep into added time.

If there was one man Villarreal could rely on, it was him. If there was one man they wanted standing over that penalty, it was him. If there was one man in their squad born for such a situation, it was him.

It is April 25, 2006, the kind of night the Valencian city of Vila-Real has seen few of. It's playing host to a Champions League semi-final just eight years on from seeing its team, Villarreal, earn their first promotion to LaLiga.

Having lost the first leg of the semi 1-0 to Arsenal in London, they have so far failed to find a way to level the tie, despite laying siege to the Gunners' goal.

But with time almost up, they have the perfect opportunity to seize the initiative as a marginal call goes their way: Gael Clichy is deemed, somewhat harshly, to have fouled Jose Mari in the box.

Up steps Juan Roman Riquelme, their undisputed talisman and one of the finest midfielders of his generation. A player possessed with the kind of technical wizardry on the ball that few others are – there's surely only one outcome?

But Riquelme's spot-kick is a poor one, placed to his right and at the perfect height for Jens Lehmann in the Arsenal goal.

The German easily makes the save, and Arsenal – not little Villarreal – are going to their first Champions League final.

They met again in the quarter-finals three years later but the tie was rather more one-sided, Arsenal winning 4-1 on aggregate.

Twelve years on and the Gunners aren't quite the power they once were, and Villarreal are looking to settle a score when they meet in their Europa League semi-final first leg on Thursday.

So too is Unai Emery.

A hiding to nothing

Emery's time at Arsenal was probably doomed from the start. Succeeding Arsene Wenger, even with the lack of success towards the end of his tenure, was always going to be a tough ask.

In his second season at the helm, for a while it seemed only a matter of time before he went from Gunner to gonner. He was eventually dismissed on November 29, 2019, and the following month saw Mikel Arteta appointed as his successor.

Though, it's fair to say Arsenal have not seen much of an improvement under Arteta, whose 79 matches in charge is just one more than Emery managed.

Arteta's win percentage of 51 is shy of Emery's 55, while under the latter the Gunners scored 152 (compared to 127). The main difference in the current coach's favour is that they have conceded considerably fewer (80, down from 100), which perhaps is likely linked to the fact Arsenal are less of a threat in attack now.

Emery's Villarreal arguably come into this tie as favourites as well. They boast a better record almost across the board for this season, winning more often (53 per cent to 47), scoring more (87 to 82) and conceding fewer (47 to 54) than the Gunners, and their coach's record in this competition speaks for itself having won it three times with Sevilla, losing just six of 39 games.

If Villarreal can qualify for their first European final, Gerard Moreno will probably have had something to do with it one way or another.

The Spain international is enjoying the best season of his career and is something of a triple-threat.

The key to Emery's revenge plot

Moreno is a clever player. What makes his productivity in front of goal all the more impressive is the fact he's rarely deployed as an out-and-out central striker.

Instead, Moreno prefers to operate from the right, coming inside on to his left foot and occasionally floating around to also maximise his creative talents.

After all, not only is he Villarreal's top scorer with 20 goals this season in LaLiga, he's also laid on the most chances (38) in the Yellow Submarine's squad.

In fact, Lionel Messi (66) is one of only five forwards in LaLiga to play more key passes than the former Espanyol talent.

Moreno's unpredictability is aided by excellent dribbling skills as well, with Messi, Javi Galan and Nabil Fekir the three individuals to better his 62 completed dribbles this term.

Additionally, his success rate is 62.6 per cent – to put that into context, Messi's is 58.6.

Granted, his goalscoring record is slightly skewed by the fact he's scored nine penalties this term, but Messi (25) is the sole LaLiga player outscoring him and he looks set to claim the Zarra award (given to the top-scoring Spaniard) for a second successive season.

His haul of 20 is also an improvement of 2.5 on his expected goals (xG) value as well, evidence that he's putting away more chances than the average player would ordinarily expect.

Moreno has also carried that goalscoring form into the Europa League, where he stands joint second on the list of scorers with six.

The skillset possessed by Villarreal's talisman makes him the ideal player to carry out a number of different roles, but it also means Arsenal have to be alive to the numerous ways he can hurt them: in front of goal, creatively, or with the ball at his feet.

The 29-year-old could have a major role to play for Spain at Euro 2020 at the end of the season. Having a decisive impact for Villarreal in such a big tie may be vital in earning more of Luis Enrique's faith, with La Roja's coach initially taking a little while to warm to him.

But for the moment all the trust he needs is Emery's, and his form this term proves he has the tools to inspire Arsenal's downfall and grasp revenge for the Yellow Submarine and their pilot.

Unai Emery has called on Arsenal to remain faithful in their "perfect marriage" with Mikel Arteta, even though he is aiming to plot his former club's downfall in the Europa League.

Emery has steered Villarreal through to the semi-finals of the competition this season, setting up a clash against the club who sacked him in November 2019.

The Spaniard left Emirates Stadium after 18 months at the helm, the club having won 49 per cent of his 51 Premier League games in charge.

He did lead the Gunners to the Europa League final in his solitary full season in the job – they lost 4-1 to London rivals Chelsea in Baku – and admits a "little corner of his heart" still belongs to Arsenal, as well as the other teams he has coached in his career.

"It is a closed stage and I only have gratitude for having worked there," Emery said of his time at Arsenal.

"It is one more process in my career and I keep the good things that have helped me. Now I am very happy at Villarreal trying to contribute my knowledge, as I did at the time with Arsenal.

"For all the teams I have been at, I have my little corner in my heart for them. But now it is yellow and 100 per cent for this club."

Arteta was appointed as Emery's replacement and while they have done well in Europe in his first full campaign, domestic results have continued to be disappointing.

Arsenal have won just two of their previous eight outings in all competitions ahead of Thursday's game at Estadio de la Ceramica and sit 10th in the English top-flight table, meaning the two-legged tie with Villarreal is crucial to their hopes of securing a return to the Champions League next season.

Still, Arteta's predecessor has made clear the importance of having enough time to turn around the fortunes of a "great club" - something he was not afforded in the role.

"The Premier League is difficult. Arsenal's situation is natural and there were certain circumstances after Wenger's time. We fought for the Champions League and we reached the final of the Europa League," Emery told the media.

"Arteta's work takes time, you have to be patient, trust and sure that the club will find its usual place. That entails time, but I think they will make it."

He added: "You cannot say more than it is a great club, in terms of history and in the present. Arteta has a perfect marriage with the club since he was a beloved player there.

"You see a team with a clear identity, with a very 'Arsenal' idea. There have important players, some with great experience and others who are young players showing quality when given the opportunity.

"We are working to see how to counter them with different plans for the match."

A three-time winner of the competition while in charge of Sevilla, Emery will be aiming to guide Villarreal to a first major European final in the club's history.

However, they have failed to beat Arsenal in four previous meetings in Europe, including in both games of their Champions League semi-final in 2006.

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