Arsenal made light of the dangers associated with this encounter and, in doing so, set up one of the stories of the season. Their hopes of progressing to the Europa League final, and potentially performing a feat of alchemy on their year’s work, rest on a meeting with Unai Emery and his Villarreal side. It will inevitably constitute a referendum on how far Arsenal have travelled since Mikel Arteta replaced Emery 16 months ago; the narrative could hardly be more compelling and has added spice given the latter’s uncharacteristic inability to produce the goods on this stage during his short time in north London.
This was a more comfortable win than Arsenal could have imagined. They had dealt comprehensively with Slavia, who promised far more after seizing the first-leg initiative, well before half-time and could then treat the night as a game management exercise. Nicolas Pépé and Bukayo Saka scored either side of Alexandre Lacazette’s penalty in a six-minute spell; that was enough and Lacazette added a stylish gloss late on.
Lacazette led from the front throughout and had done so as the teams prepared for kick-off, too. On Wednesday the Slavia defender Ondrej Kudela had been banned for 10 games for racially abusing Rangers’ Glen Kamara; while the home side stood in a line beyond the centre-circle, Lacazette took a knee in front of them and stared directly ahead, his teammates following suit. Before and after a ball was kicked, Arsenal were the only team that came out looking good.
Within 24 minutes of the start Arsenal could sense that, even by their own wobbly standards, the tie was already won. They had found the net four times and, even if only three of those goals counted, the lead was testament to a mesmerising spell of attacking play that Slavia simply could not handle. The runaway Czech champions had not lost at home for almost 18 months but they are unlikely to have faced opponents who have produced anything like the burst of sustained speed and quality that rendered the rest of the night a formality.
It briefly seemed VAR might be a wearisome headline maker when, with Arsenal’s first serious attack, Saka blazed a trail inside from the right before hammering a drive that Ondrej Kolar clawed onto his far post. Emile Smith Rowe knocked in the rebound but was, at considerable length, adjudged to have been offside by a toe.
This Arsenal side has wilted after lesser disappointments but this time they bloomed. Smith Rowe is, like Saka, a character with silk and steel to build a side around and showed both almost immediately to banish any frustration. He had a shot blocked in the box but persisted in trying to forge a path, regaining possession and surging past two Slavia players. The pass that followed, angled cutely through a defender’s legs, was perfect and matched by a clever finish from Pépé . Waiting for Kolar to commit, the Ivorian lifted the ball high into the net from an angle and Slavia’s away-goal lead had dissolved.
That was soon the least of their worries. Slavia had lost all of their defensive shape and Arsenal, destroying them down the right flank, came again. This time Saka was clipped by Jakub Hromada after the ball was sent in and Cuneyt Cakir, the referee, needed no invitation to award the spot kick. Kolar dived right; Lacazette rolled it to his left and Arsenal would now go through if they applied a modicum of common sense to the remainder.
Even so, there was no harm in making sure. Pick a superlative and the chances are it would apply to Saka, who manages to improve by the week and is indisputably Arsenal’s most important player. He was fed by Calum Chambers, who stole the ball near halfway before looking to his teammate, and sent David Zima spinning with his change of direction infield. Rather than blasting across Kolar, this time Saka cut his finish low inside the near post and left the keeper standing.
Watching from afar after revealing before kick-off that he had been diagnosed with malaria, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang could reflect that this time there would be no need for the kind of salvage operation with which he has often been tasked. Arsenal were entirely comfortable now and, when Alexander Bah blasted well over in the 37th minute, it was a rare reminder Slavia were still notionally involved in the tie.
They needed to score four times without reply, though, and never showed much sign of making the slightest inroad. Their manager, Jindrich Trpisovsky, made four substitutions at the interval but seemingly with conservation in mind rather than any headlong dash to rescue the tie. The consequence was a second half that quickly descended into pre-season friendly levels of tempo and entertainment.
Lacazette illuminated it, and crowned Arsenal’s evening, by controlling Pépé’s centre before turning and firing low past Kolar 13 minutes from time.