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. Fairly or not, this will inevitably constitute a referendum on how far Arsenal have travelled since 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 remainder as a game management exercise. Nicolas Pépé and Bukayo Saka scored either side of Alexandre Lacazette’s penalty in a blistering six-minute spell; that was enough and Lacazette added a stylish gloss late on.
Lacazette captained Arsenal and this was one of his finest nights in the club’s shirt: the kind that makes both parties’ decisions over a new contract look all the more difficult to predict. He led from the front throughout and had done so as the teams prepared for kick-off, too.
The Slavia defender Ondrej Kudela received a 10-game ban on Wednesday for racially abusing Rangers’ Glen Kamara and, to be clear, nobody was laying down the law regarding how or whether his teammates should respond. But perhaps they should have thought it through for themselves: the home players stood, arms across each other’s shoulders, while Arsenal’s players knelt in what Arteta explained afterwards was a premeditated move. Lacazette was a steely-eyed spearhead, occupying the centre circle on his own while facing his opponents, and the contrast was striking. Only one team came out looking good and that also went for everything that followed.
Saka said Arsenal’s performance “showed everyone how exciting we can be”. Slavia had not lost at home in almost 18 months but could not handle a mesmerising burst of attacking quality that blew them away. Arsenal knew within 24 minutes of the start that, even by their own wobbly standards, the tie was won and they achieved it via the kind of relentless tempo they have found hard to muster for long periods of the campaign.
It was a spell that brought four goals, even if only three of them counted, and a stack of highlights. There briefly seemed a risk VAR would 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 length, adjudged to have been offside by a toe.
This Arsenal side have wilted after lesser disappointments but now they bloomed. Smith Rowe is, like Saka, a character with silk and steel to build a side around and showed both immediately. 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 into the net and Slavia’s away-goal lead had dissolved.
That was soon the least of their worries. Slavia had lost any defensive shape and Arsenal, destroying them down the right flank, came again. This time Saka was clipped by Jakub Hromada after the tireless Smith Rowe had made ground and crossed; Cuneyt Cakir needed no invitation to award the penalty and, while Kolar dived right, Lacazette rolled it to his left.
Then Arsenal made sure. Pick a superlative and it would apply to Saka, who is indisputably their most important player by now. He was fed by Calum Chambers and sent David Zima spinning with his change of direction infield. Rather than blasting across Kolar, this time he cut his finish low inside the near post and left the keeper standing.
Watching from afar after revealing he had been diagnosed with malaria, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang could reflect there would be no need for the kind of salvage operation with which he has often been tasked. Arsenal were entirely comfortable now, Slavia needing to score four times without reply and showing little inclination to make a headlong dash for glory.
The Slavia manager, Jindrich Trpisovsky, made four substitutions at the interval but seemingly with conservation in mind; the consequence was a second half with the only moment of note an excellent low drive by Lacazette, whose sixth goal in as many games came after he controlled a Pépé cross and turned cleverly. He had made his point in more than one way.