Unai Emery was proud of his Arsenal players after they reached the semi-finals of the Europa League with a victory away at Napoli.
Leading 2-0 from the first leg, the Gunners will now face Valencia in the last four after Alexandre Lacazette’s 36th-minute free-kick was enough to seal victory on the night and a much-deserved 3-0 aggregate win over a Napoli side far from their best.
For all the criticism often aimed at the Arsenal defence, they have now kept six clean sheets in their last seven games and not conceded in consecutive away matches across all competitions for the first time since January 2017.
And Emery was pleased with the performance of his team in what is often a hostile environment at the San Paolo Stadium in Naples.
“I am very proud of my players and of our work,” he said.
“We show the players have the habit to play matches against good teams, in a good atmosphere, and show big personality.
“We wanted to keep the ball more but we didn’t do all we wanted. Positioning we were very good and doing good pressing.”
The Gunners fell at the last-four stage to Atletico Madrid a year ago and La Liga opposition again stands in their way of reaching the final in Baku on May 29 with Emery’s former club Valencia up next.
Emery is once again proving he is the master of this competition – no manager has won more knockout games in the Europa League than the Arsenal head coach, who won three consecutive titles while at Sevilla.
“I grew up a lot in this competition,” added the Spaniard.
“The Europa League gives us a big opportunity to do something important, to play in the Champions League.
“It’s a title and gives us the possibility to play in the Champions League when in our domestic league a lot of teams are trying to take it.
“The Europa League is for us now with Premier League a very important competition.”
One sour note for Arsenal was an injury suffered by Aaron Ramsey just before Lacazette’s free-kick with Emery not drawn on whether the midfielder – who will join Juventus on a free transfer when his contract expires this summer – had played his last game for the club.
“It is a muscular injury,” Emery explained.
“Normally it is going to be some weeks outside the team. But he was in a very good moment and working very well but we have other players ready and waiting.”
Napoli threatened for a small part of the first half but, over the course of the two legs, were well-beaten – with Carlo Ancelotti praising Arsenal’s performance.
“Arsenal is an intelligent team,” he said.
“They play well in front and defend together. Not a team that play fantastic football but they are a really intelligent team. They did a good job, deserve the victory and I hope the best for them in the Europa League.”
Benfica prodigy Joao Felix’s startling talent was not enough to prevent Thursday’s chastening Europa League quarter-final exit at Eintracht Frankfurt.
The svelte 19-year-old Juventus and Manchester United target became the competition’s youngest-ever hat-trick scorer in last week’s 4-2 first-leg win for the Portuguese. But the forward – shunted from the centre and onto the left wing in a 4-2-3-1 formation – experienced a quiet night at PSD Bank Arena.
Serbia winger Filip Kostic’s rebound, from an offside position, and midfielder Sebastian Rode’s sharp finish earned a 2-0 triumph on the night. This sent the Bundesliga’s fourth-placed club through to the last-four on away goals, where they’ll meet Chelsea.
Here is a review of the coveted forward’s ineffectual display:
Key passes: 1
Pass accuracy: 69.2 per cent
Dribbles completed: 0
Benfica had appeared strong favourites to make a first UEL semi since 2011 after a dominant opening stanza and run of six wins from their last seven matches in all competitions.
Progression was first threatened by Kostic’s follow up on 36 minutes. The video-assistant referee’s absence was glaring, with overzealous protests causing head coach Bruno Lage’s dismissal.
The 2-0 victory that Eintracht dreamed of then came to fruition when Rode slotted in on 67 minutes after superb footwork from the edge of the penalty area by Croatia winger Ante Rebic.
Benfica substitute Eduardo Salvio would rattle the near post late on, but they couldn’t save themselves.
Flashes of quality
Felix’s innate dribbling ability and appreciation of space still showed from the left wing – the only issue was that he has such little opportunity to do it.
The teenager had ripped Eintracht apart as a false nine in Lisbon. Why Lage felt the need to change a winning formula – deploying game Switzerland striker Haris Seferovic on his own up top – will require searching examination and explanation.
A wonderful feint and drive into the area just after the interval showcased Felix at his best, highlighting the threat on the counter-attack Lage, surely, strived for. So, too, a header that just went over soon after.
There just wasn’t enough.
A lack of experience
An obvious question emerges – could Felix have showed more?
Switzerland midfielder Gelson Fernandes and Japan’s Makoto Hasebe both rattled into him during the early stages. To his credit, Benfica’s latest bright prospect did not appear cowed by this.
Instead, the game passed him by from the wing. From Benfica players who featured for the entire 90 minutes, his 40 touches was the second least and 26 passes was the lowest recorded.
This could be interpreted as a diligent undertaking of Lage’s tactics. Or it could be viewed as a youngster who did not think on his feet and work out how to grasp the mettle.
Felix was far from culpable – his two attempts on goal was the joint most for Benfica.
All football careers are undulating. Even those of players blessed with divine gifts.
Felix’s strong mentality should see this poor night utilised as a formative experience on the road to superstardom.
Toby Alderweireld went from “hell to heaven” as Tottenham snatched a Champions League semi-final place on a night of VAR drama at Manchester City.
Spurs thought their hopes of reaching the last four had been dashed at the last moment when Raheem Sterling struck deep into injury time of a pulsating quarter-final at the Etihad Stadium on Wednesday.
But the goal was disallowed following a VAR review and Spurs, despite still trailing 4-3 on the night, prevailed courtesy of the away goals rule in a 4-4 aggregate draw.
“It was from hell to heaven,” said Spurs defender Alderweireld. “I was thinking we can’t concede in that moment, we knew what we had thrown (away).
“I think we were a little bit angry in that moment but then we saw the ref going back saying, ‘Offside’.
“It was unbelievable. I couldn’t believe it on the pitch. For the neutral fans it was an unbelievable night.”
The drama and VAR interventions were not just restricted to the closing moments in what was a classic encounter.
Sterling opening the scoring inside four minutes but Spurs were leading by the 10th minute courtesy of a quickfire Son Heung-min double. City equalised through Bernardo Silva a minute later and were leading again after 21 minutes as Sterling scored his second.
Sergio Aguero put City in command of the tie after the break but Fernando Llorente bundled in another Spurs goal after 73 minutes, awarded only after a lengthy VAR check for suspected handball.
Sterling thought he had settled the affair in the most dramatic fashion but City’s jubilation quickly turned sour and Tottenham were left to celebrate a first European Cup semi-final appearance since 1962.
“It is a historical day for Spurs,” said Alderweireld, 30, who came through the Academy ranks at semi-final opponents Ajax. “The mentality of the team, even after going behind, was unbelievable.
“To go through against the team of the moment in City was unbelievable for us. I think we can be proud of ourselves.”
On returning to Amsterdam, Alderweireld said: “I think (it’s like) going back home. I had a wonderful time there.
“It is an unbelievable semi-final for us and we know it is a top team to beat.”