When Mouctar Diakhaby put Valencia up 1-0 in the 11th minute, it felt like a “here we go again” moment for Arsenal. The Gunners are in the midst of a poor run of form, particularly defensively, and seemed likely to concede a second away goal. It looked like it might be a long night, just with better lighting.
Thankfully, Gabriel Paulista is still the same defender that we not so fondly remember from his time at the Emirates. He didn’t wait long to remind us of that — seven minutes to be exact. The centerback stepped up over-aggressively on Alexandre Lacazette, got easily turned, and was hopelessly out of position on the break. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang blew past his mark, beat two defenders and the keeper with a cutback, and found the late-arriving Lacazette who put it into the wide open net.
Lacazette added a second a few minutes later, heading home Granit Xhaka’s perfectly placed cross to give the Gunners a 2-1 lead. While the Frenchman put in a strong performance and two goals is nothing to sneeze at, he could have had an even better night. He missed two or three gilt-edged chances in the second half to extend Arsenal’s lead. In a two-legged tie, especially when your side has conceded an away goal, missed chances could come back to haunt you.
Were it not for Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, the deciding moment of the tie might have been one of those misses. To be fair, they still could be, but his 89th minute goal gave Arsenal some much-needed breathing room heading into the away leg. Valencia must win 2-0 instead of 1-0 to advance on away goals. If Arsenal manage to knock one in, advancing becomes a tall task for the Oranges.
Even though I’m far beyond sounding like a broken record on him, I have to praise Laurent Koscielny’s performance on the evening. He has made a habit of being in the right place at the right time and making critical tackles to shut down attacking moves. One play in particular stands out — midway through the second half, he recognized that someone was running in behind and made a crucial diving header to clear the cross and prevent what likely would have been a back-breaking second goal for the visitors. I shudder to think where Arsenal would be right now if he hadn’t come back so quickly from his Achilles injury.
Henrikh Mkhitaryan also played well. His 75th minute substitution reinvigorated the Arsenal attack. He drove the play, often by collecting the ball deep in the middle third of the pitch and carrying it forward himself. Tonight was a “good Mkhi” night, the Gunners could do with more of those to close out the season.
Arsenal are home to Brighton on Sunday before traveling to Valencia next Thursday.