Arsenal reached their first European final since 2006, after a convincing win over Valencia. Ryan Hunn reports back from a wild Estadio de Mestalla.
The sang, they sang and they sang some more. The briefest of pauses, then an eruption. Scarves waving above the heads of those singing as though their lives depended on it. Off went a firework, then a flare, then another flare: orange smoke, black smoke, white smoke. It blended together and rolled down Av. de Suecia. It was 7.42pm and the Valencia bus was making its way to Mestalla.
Inside Mestalla it was much of the same: feverish, and it would have been easy to think that it was Valencia’s season on the line. With a Copa del Rey final against Barcelona looming, they still have a route into the Champions League, being just three points off fourth in La Liga. Every tackle was cheered, as was every throw-in, every loss of Arsenal possession, anything. Even though there is more to play for this season, this meant everything.
“That 15 minutes was really hard, the fans pushed a lot,” said Nacho Monreal afterwards. After five minutes, a Valencia break that resulted in a corner brought Mestalla to its feet. As did Petr Čech’s lack of urgency when taking a goal kick shortly after. Less than a minute later, the whistles were of such a high frequency they could have come from the huge bat that dons Mestalla’s east stand. But in such a fantasy, the deep, booming ‘oooh’ that followed a Gonçalo Guedes shot - that went just over that bar - could have come from something that would gobble it up.
Everything up that point was barely a whisper, however, to when the home side took the lead just after ten minutes. Rodrigo’s deflected passed squirmed to the back post, where Kévin Gameiro was perfectly placed to tap in. Up went Mestalla and Valencia could have had a second a couple of minutes after, had Gameiro been able to redirect another Rodrigo effort goal bound. There would be other chances, like when Rodrigo chested the ball down just outside the box, but his half volley flew just wide. Thirty seconds later, Arsenal were level.
In a week of unthinkable, unfathomable and unbelievable comebacks, this fixture – based on the opening period - looked as though it would round off the set. That was until Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang found space through the Valencia defence. As the ball fell to him on the edge of the box, the collective intake of breath seemed to suck every last sound out of Mestalla for a split second. As Aubameyang’s volley flew into the right corner, the balloon of silence was burst by a needle of noise descending from the Arsenal fans in the upper north-east corner of the ground. Part jubilation, part relief. Sweet bloody relief. They had been watching the same game as everyone else and knew how ominous this had started to look.
The visitors needed this, but the home side could really have done without it. The pandemonium that had started long before the sun had set was becoming subdued and flavoured with the slightest drop of disappointment. But as the home crowd rallied, so did the Valencia players, a Dani Parejo free-kick flew just wide of Čech’s far post and raised the volume once more.
Arsenal should have killed the tie shortly after: on the edge of the box - where many would just clear to safety - Mesut Özil played a smart pass to Alexandre Lacazette. After the Frenchman returned it, Özil glided through the Valencia midfield with a stride as smooth as the surface that his feet barely seemed to be touching. He released Aubameyang, who sped down the right flank and cut back to Lacazette - now just inside the Valencia box - and his shot skimmed the post.
The bocadillos may not have tasted as good as they could have at half-time, with the game going into the break level. The chewing was nervous and frantic. Valencia needed two.
After the break, Mestalla came alive once more, when Perejo sprinted from close to the half way line to press Čech. Ten seconds later, his own error in midfield would draw groans and prove to be costly. Arsenal broke, Aubameyang passed to Lucas Torreira who fed Lacazette. The Frenchman swivelled and fired into the bottom right corner.
After almost four hours of relentless effort and energy, Mestalla, understandably, seemed tired. They were awoken once more on 57 minutes, when Daniel Wass got in behind Sead Kolasinac. Wass cut back to Rodrigo, whose scuffed shot wasn’t dealt with by Čech, and Gameiro bundled it over the line. Valencia had one, Mestalla was again as it was when the first whistle blew. Valencia needed three. They couldn’t, could they?
When Francis Coquelin shaped and struck a shot from a distance he is rarely seen to do, another booming ‘ooh’ flowed around those steep old stands. Everything was again in extremes: deafening rallying calls one minute, turbo charged puffs of frustration the next. Piercing whistles when any Arsenal player went down, or when Özil took an eternity making his way off when being substituted.
And after 69 minutes, something that hadn’t been heard all night: the strange shuffling sound of a thousand pairs of feet, one heard as the lights go up and the curtain comes down in a movie theatre. The Valencia fans had more than done their bit, but now many would head for the exits. Ainsley Maitland-Niles drove a low pass across the box for Aubameyang, who had nipped in front of his marker. The ball sunk into the net like a closing act dagger.
“Adios, adios, adios,” sang the visiting fans, and the last twenty minutes was played very much because it only had to be. Shkodran Mustafi came on and got a warmer reception in the place he used to call home than he often gets in the place he does currently. Valencia had a few more chances but the tie, now 3-6 on aggregate, was now beyond them. Aubameyang - who was outstanding - sealed it by completing his hat-trick and Valencia will have to wait until May 25th for another chance at their first trophy in 11 years.
Arsenal, meanwhile, are into their first European final in 13 years, where they will face Chelsea, who beat Eintracht Frankfurt on penalties. It’s hard to argue that they don’t deserve it and this was by no means a breeze. There were puffs of cheeks and tired expressions as they slowly made their way back to the team bus. It was clear that this was a win that early in the evening was nowhere near as assured as it became.
After such a collapse in the final month of the Premier League season, Arsenal could yet finish the season with their first European trophy in 25 years and back in next year’s Champions League. If they do, it’ll be their best season since 2004.