Arsenal will have to save their season the hard way, and by now it seems as if they know no other. They seemed to have a tentative foot in the Europa League semi-finals when Nicolas Pépé, running on to a pass from his fellow substitute Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, dinked in a delightful finish as the minutes ticked down. But then came the sting: in the third minute of stoppage time a Slavia Prague corner popped up off Pépé and straight into the path of Tomas Holes, who thundered in a header that gives his side an away-goal advantage before next Thursday’s second leg. Mikel Arteta will rue a number of missed chances, with Bukayo Saka and Alexandre Lacazette the chief culprits.
Given Arteta’s constraints elsewhere it seemed quite a statement to bench Aubameyang, even if the captain’s previous two starts had been relevant only for their anonymity. Kieran Tierney, who will miss at least the next month, was joined by Martin Ødegaard and David Luiz on the sidelines so it was understandable that the weight of absent quality bred a sense of foreboding.
That was doubly the case given Slavia had shown, in accounting for Leicester and Rangers, that their talents translate far beyond the Czech league they dominate. The visitors had issues of their own, though: both of their regular centre-backs were absent and one of them, the suspended Ondrej Kudela, will receive a longer-term ban if Uefa discern he was guilty of racially abusing Glen Kamara at Ibrox last month.
One of Slavia’s defensive deputies, Holes, is more familiarly a midfielder but showed commendable timing to deny Saka a run at goal in the fifth minute. Lacazette had created the opening and Arsenal’s greatest moments of early threat came whenever the pair combined. Otherwise, they were by no means the dominant force: Slavia looked a confident, compact side happy to commit players forward when the occasion presented itself and almost scored on the quarter-hour.
Their rangy midfielder, Lukas Provod, half-volleyed the loose ball a foot too high from 20 yards after Héctor Bellerín had headed Alexander Bah’s cross away. Provod started the move with a perceptive switch to the right; Slavia’s switching of positions in attack was causing concern but Arsenal began to impose themselves with a degree of consistency after the half’s midway point and Saka will wonder how he did not put them ahead in the 29th minute.
Given the freedom of the inside-right channel after Rob Holding had ventured upfield to put him through and with Bah playing him well onside, Saka had time to stare into the whites of Ondrej Kolar’s eyes but got his angles wrong. He slipped the ball wide of both the keeper and the far post, letting his opponents off but nonetheless confirming he was Arsenal’s primary source of danger.
It was Holding who came close next, though, beating two men to Cédric’s deep cross and seeing Kolar tip his header over. Saka had fizzed a tantalising ball across goal moments previously and, by the interval, Arsenal could at least feel they had established some control.
Willian almost turned it into a goal within four minutes of the restart when, after the irrepressible Saka had been fouled just outside the area by David Zima, he bent a free-kick on to the outside Kolar’s left post.
But chances were not coming regularly and Slavia produced one of their own when they worked the ball boldly from defence and Provod located the rampaging left-back Jan Boril in a shooting position. Leno saved smartly with his legs yet it was a reminder, as Slavia regained a measure of their earlier composure, that the night’s margins were slimming.
Lacazette should have bent them in Arsenal’s favour when, after winning the ball near halfway, he contrived a miss to outdo Saka’s aberration. He had 50 yards to run into but with the goal at his mercy lifted his shot on to the crossbar. He then directed a Saka cross over from inside the six-yard box and thoughts turned to the centre-forward who was watching from the side.
Aubameyang eventually replaced Lacazette 12 minutes from time as Arteta flung on the cavalry. He prodded Emile Smith Rowe’s cross wide when a proper contact would have ensured a fairytale arrival; Arsenal had lived dangerously moments previously, though, when the Slavia substitute Petr Sevcik set himself inside their box and drilled inches wide.
Next Gabriel Martinelli came close but, as Pépé ran through to seemingly win the day, the drama had only just begun.