Arsenal shed light on the dangers of 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 achieving a feat of alchemy on their year’s work, rest on a meeting with Unai Emery and his Villarreal side. It will inevitably be a referendum on how far Arsenal has come since Mikel Arteta replaced Emery 16 months ago; the tale could hardly be more convincing and added spice given the latter’s unusual inability to produce the wares on this stage during his short stay in north London.
It was a more comfortable victory than Arsenal could have imagined. They had dealt comprehensively with Slavia, who had promised much more after taking the initiative in the first leg, well before half-time and could then treat the night as an exercise in game management. Nicolas Pépé and Bukayo Saka have scored on either side of Alexandre Lacazette’s penalty in six minutes; that was enough and Lacazette added an elegant gloss belatedly.
Lacazette led forward throughout and had done so as the teams prepared for kickoff as well. Slavia defender Ondrej Kudela was banned for 10 games on Wednesday for racially abusing Rangers’ Glen Kamara; as the home team stood in a line beyond the center circle, Lacazette took a knee in front of them and looked straight ahead, his teammates following suit. Before and after a ball was kicked, Arsenal were the only team to come out in style.
Within 24 minutes of the start, Arsenal could sense that, even by their own wobbly criteria, the tie was already won. They had found the net four times and, while only three of those goals counted, the lead testified to a fascinating spell of attacking play that Slavia just couldn’t handle. The runaway Czech champions hadn’t lost at home in nearly 18 months, but it’s unlikely they faced opponents who produced anything like the explosion of speed and sustained quality that did the rest of the night a formality.
It briefly looked like VAR could be a boring title maker when, with Arsenal’s first serious attack, Saka made a trail inside the right before hammering a drive that Ondrej Kolar clawed at his other. post. Emile Smith Rowe hit in the rebound but was long ruled offside with one toe.
This Arsenal team faded after lesser disappointments but this time they bloomed. Smith Rowe is, like Saka, a character with silk and steel to build a side and showed both almost immediately to banish any frustration. He had a shot blocked in the box but persisted in trying to clear his way, regain possession and pass two Slavia players. The pass that followed, sloping slightly between the legs of a defender, was perfect and matched with a smart Pepe finish. While waiting for Kolar to engage, the Ivorian lifted the ball high into the net at an angle and Slavia’s lead from the outside goal dissolved.
This was soon the least of their worries. Slavia had lost all of their defensive form and Arsenal, destroying them on the right flank, returned. This time, Saka was cut by Jakub Hromada after the ball was sent and Cuneyt Cakir, the referee, did not need any invitation to award the free kick. Kolar dived to the right; Lacazette rolled him to his left and Arsenal would pass now if he applied a minimum of common sense to the rest.
Even so, there was no harm in making sure. Pick a superlative and there’s a good chance that will apply to Saka, who manages to improve every week and is arguably Arsenal’s most important player. He was fed by Calum Chambers, who stole the ball halfway before turning to his teammate, and sent David Zima spinning with his change of direction on the pitch. Rather than blasting Kolar this time, Saka cut his low finish inside the nearest post and left the keeper standing.
Looking from afar after revealing before kick-off that he had been diagnosed with malaria, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang might think that this time around there would be no need for the kind of rescue operation he often has. been loaded. Arsenal were quite comfortable now and, when Alexander Bah exploded in the 37th minute, it was a rare reminder that Slavia was still theoretically involved in the draw.
They must have scored four unanswered times, however, and never showed much sign of making any forays. Their manager, Jindrich Trpisovsky, made four substitutions in between, but apparently with conservation in mind rather than any headlong rush to save the tie. The consequence was a second half that quickly descended into friendly levels of tempo and pre-season entertainment.
Lacazette lit him up, and topped off Arsenal’s night, controlling Pépé’s cross before turning and shooting low past Kolar at 13 minutes per hour.