Arsenal’s collapse at the business end of the Premier League season means the success or failure of Unai Emery’s first campaign now solely depends on lifting the Europa League and as a result sealing Champions League football.
The Gunners travel to Emery’s old club Valencia on Thursday defending a 3-1 semi-final, first leg lead given to them by star strikers Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang at the Emirates last week.
Arsenal’s awful record on the road this season will give the Spanish side plenty of encouragement that they can overturn a two-goal deficit.
Emery’s men conceded three times in losing at Wolves and Leicester in their last two away league games and were also defeated at BATE Borisov and Rennes before turning Europa League ties around at the Emirates.
Attack may therefore be the visitors’ best form of defence in the cauldron of the Mestalla and Arsenal are at least getting what they paid for from Lacazette and Aubameyang.
“We played against two strikers that are very good which is why they cost the millions that they did,” said Valencia coach Marcelino Garcia Toral.
“With the slightest error they punish you.”
Arsenal have taken one point from their last four Premier League games to realistically end their chances of a top-four finish and the first leg against Valencia could easily have gone the same way as Marcelino’s men scored an early away goal and led the Gunners to a merry dance for the first 20 minutes.
However, one moment of magic turned the tie as Lacazette played in Aubameyang, who paused, left Neto, Ezequiel Garay and Facundo Roncaglia on the floor before squaring for his strike partner to roll into an empty net.
Lacazette added his second eight minutes later and Aubameyang’s late strike gave Arsenal the two-goal cushion they may well need.
The Londoners’ first season without Arsene Wenger for 22 years has been dogged by many of the same defensive problems suffered by the Frenchman towards the end of his reign.
But Wenger’s final two big signings have come good as club record fees were paid for Lacazette in the summer of 2017 and Aubameyang in January 2018.
After a difficult first six months in England, many thought Aubameyang’s arrival was ominous for Lacazette’s longevity at the club, but the two have formed a fine partnership on and off the field.
Only Liverpool’s Mohamed Salah has scored more Premier League goals than Aubameyang’s 20, but it is Lacazette who won the club’s player of the year prize for his all round contribution with 18 goals and 12 assists.
Those figures are all the more impressive as they have often had to battle for just one starting spot.
Both players have voiced their displeasure at Emery’s reluctance throughout the campaign to play with two strikers.
“You know that I like to play with two strikers but I don’t want to say it,” admitted Aubameyang, while Lacazette conceded to French television station RMC he “could be even happier” if he started more regularly.
“Every player wants to play each match for 90 minutes, but as a manager I need to use the player in the best moment,” said Emery in defence of his decisions throughout the season.
“Sometimes our performances are better with both, but sometimes our big performances are better with only one, and after they make an impact replacing another striker.”
Given the problems Emery is trying to patch up at the other end, the Gunners are likely to need the firepower of both to ensure they make it to Baku to try and save their season next month.