Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang scored a hat-trick to fire Arsenal into the Europa League final after the Gunners secured a 4-2 (7-3 aggregate) win over Valencia at the Mestalla on Thursday night.
Unai Emery’s side came into the clash in Spain in control of the tie, having won the first leg 3-1 in London last week, but the visitors were handed an early scare when Kevin Gameiro opened the scoring on his 32nd birthday.
Aubameyang superbly equalised just six minutes later, however, which was then followed up by Alexandre Lacazette’s goal in the 50th minute – all of which meant Valencia had a steep mountain to climb even with Gameiro’s scrappy second of the night.
And when Aubameyang then bundled in Ainsley Maitland-Niles’ cross in the 69th minute, and subsequently fired into the roof of the net late on, it proved too much for the Spanish side as Arsenal kept their hopes of qualifying for next season’s Champions League alive by booking their place in the Europa League final where they will play XX, who beat XX in London.
Arsenal’s task of progressing to the final was made that much more difficult by the Valencia fans, who had been urged by coach Marcelino to make the Mestalla a daunting cauldron of noise that would successfully be able to put the Gunners off their flow and help the hosts to an early goal.
And, after hundreds of Valencia supporters lined the streets outside the Mestalla to thunderously whistle the Arsenal team bus as it arrived, it seemed the plan to use the home fans was working.
Indeed, Valencia who took the lead first – and within just 11 minutes – after Ainsley Maitland-Niles’ effort was blocked by Neto which allowed the Spanish side to launch a swift counter-attack.
Rodrigo used his pace to get down the left flank and, after his cross took a deflection, Gameiro pounced onto the ball to drive it beyond Petr Cech.
The goal sent the home fans wild and they could have been celebrating a second just three minutes later but Rodrigo saw his close-range effort blocked.
With the atmosphere raucous and with Valencia seemingly in ascendancy, there was a real worry that Arsenal might be on the verge of folding. But Aubameyang – as in the first leg when he netted in added time – came to the rescue with yet another crucial strike for the Gunners.
His goal came on the back of a defensive error from the hosts, with Gabriel failing to win an aerial ball which Lacazette instead won and headed into the path of Aubameyang, who raced onto it and struck the ball with the outside of his boot to restore parity on the night.
Arsenal were creating chances and they could have scored another goal, but Aubameyang’s low shot was claimed by Neto, which worked to dampen Valencia’s spirit for a while.
But Marcelino’s men picked themselves back up to win a free-kick in a dangerous position in the 34th-minute, which captain Daniel Parejo drove inches wide. They even had a penalty appeal when Maitland-Niles appeared to catch Jose Gaya inside the area, but the Valencia man was instead booked for diving.
Despite looking dangerous every time they went on the attack, Valencia were too prone to counter-attacks and errors down the other end of the pitch.
And Arsenal should have punished the hosts in the 39th minute when Aubameyang cut the ball back to Lacazette who, despite having time and space to pick out his shot, ended up clipping the post with an effort that flew just wide.
But the pair weren’t done just yet. In the 50th minute, Aubameyang won the ball back from the hosts before sending it to Lucas Torreira, who subseqently fed Lacazette in the left of the box.
The striker, who scored twice in the first leg, latched onto the midfielder’s pass and, after taking two touches, drove past Neto to put Arsenal 5-2 ahead in the tie.
Valencia looked spent and out of the contest, but somehow they got another goal back – although it was a scrappy one. Rodrigo’s shot hit Gameiro and the striker bundled the ball over the line with Arsenal caught napping.
Ezequiel Garay then threatened to score again but saw his shot hurtle wide but, in what was proving a theme in the entertaining game, Arsenal scored – and it was Aubameyang once again.
After Maitland-Niles crossed the ball into the box from the right, Aubameyang bundled in before firing into the roof of the net from substitute Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s pass to extinguish Valencia’s hopes.
Indeed, Arsenal saw out the rest of the game comfortably as they celebrated a rare away win that puts them in the final where Emery and his men will have the chance to not only secure Champions League football but do so by winning a trophy in what has been a season of change and transition for the north Londoners.