London: Arsenal's Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang struck a vital late goal to seal a 3-1 win over Valencia on Thursday and give his side breathing space for the second leg of their Europa League semi-final in Spain next week.
Alexandre Lacazette scored twice in the first half after Mouctar Diakhaby had stunned the Emirates crowd with an early header to give Valencia the lead. The tie was still balanced on a knife edge, however, before Gabon striker Aubameyang's 90th-minute volley put his side in control ahead of the second leg in Valencia's Mestalla.
Unai Emery's team will need to show more steel than they have done away from home for much of the season, though, if they are to reach the final in Baku and a possible meeting with London rivals Chelsea.
Chelsea drew 1-1 away in the first leg of their semi-final against Eintracht Frankfurt. Arsenal, Europa League semi-finalists last year, had lost three consecutive Premier League games to drop to fifth place in the table with two games left -- undermining their hopes of qualifying for the Champions League via a top-four finish. But Emery has a special relationship with the Europa League having won it three times in a row with Sevilla and delivering the trophy to Arsenal for the first time now looks their most likely route back into the elite tournament.
"We know it's going to be hard (in Valencia) so of course getting as many goals as we could is better for us," Lacazette, who should have been celebrating a hat-trick, said. "Thankfully, Auba scored the third one. "We want to win the Europa League to go straight to the Champions League but also to win a trophy."
Arsenal had conceded nine goals in their last three Premier League games and it was easy to see why in a dreadful opening. Valencia, themselves struggling to secure a top-four spot in La Liga, sliced through the home defence at will and had gone close to scoring before Frenchman Diakhaby put them ahead.
When a corner was swung over in the 11th minute, an unmarked Rodrigo headed it back across goal where Diakhaby rose above three stationary Arsenal defenders to nod past Petr Cech. For a while there was panic in the Arsenal ranks and both Daniel Parejo and Goncalo Guedes threatened a second. But Lacazette stopped Valencia in their tracks seven minutes after the hosts went behind.
He released Aubameyang with a superb pass before arriving in the box to steer a shot past Neto after his fellow striker cleverly held up the ball before squaring it. Seven minutes passed before Granit Xhaka's cross found Lacazette and his downward header had just enough power to cross the line despite Neto's desperate attempt to keep it out. Suddenly Arsenal was rampant and another Xhaka cross found Aubameyang but he bounced his volley over.
Valencia burst back into life in the second half and it needed a brave header by Arsenal captain Laurent Koscielny to stop a cross reaching the dangerous Goncalo Guedes. Lacazette wasted two gilt-edged chances to put the hosts in control, miscuing a header from Aubameyang's cross with the goal gaping and weakly shooting straight at Neto. Valencia, losing semi-finalists in 2012 and 2014, would have been reasonably content heading back to Spain with a one-goal deficit but they switched off in the dying minutes. Moments after Neto had made a superb save, Arsenal kept the ball alive and Sead Kolasinac's cross found Aubameyang at the far post to drive his volley home.
Despite the win, Arsenal coach Unai Emery was notably cagey about his side's chances of reaching this month's final in Baku ahead of the second leg at Valencia's Mestalla stadium next week."It's a good result, but the second leg is going to be very difficult and may be different. I consider it 50-50 in this one," the Spaniard told reporters.
"They are going to feel strong with their supporters there."
Valencia manager Marcelino appeared to agree. "I don't think any Valencia fan will think they were particularly stronger than us. We are excited and optimistic. If we have our fans behind us and get things right, we can win next week," he said.
Arsenal have been dogged by a string of poor displays away from The Emirates this season, and they have now conceded 10 goals in their last four games in all competitions.
Winning the Europa League looks like being the surest route to next season's Champions League competition for both sides as they sit outside the qualifying spots in their domestic leagues.
Nevertheless, Emery said he was looking forward to returning to the Mestalla, having led Valencia to third-place finishes in La Liga behind Barcelona and Real Madrid for three consecutive seasons from 2010 to 2012.
"I want to enjoy playing there, with our players and our supporters. It's going to be a tough atmosphere," he said."We are going to prepare for the match thinking to win, thinking to score, thinking to take our moment in the attack, but it depends," he said with a shrug.
Marcelino seemed to feel that the scoreline on Thursday night flattered the home side somewhat."I don't think Arsenal expected that result, but the game is played until the final whistle," he said."They have two very good strikers - I don't know how many millions of euros they cost - and if you make the slightest mistake at this level, players like them can make you pay."
The Spaniard suggested that his side still have everything to play for."The goal at the end was a surprise and makes it more difficult for us. But it doesn't take anything away from our thought that we can still reach the final," he added.