Mikel Arteta says Arsenal will take the “biggest step forward” if they reach the Europa League final by overcoming Villarreal in the second leg of their semi-final tie on Thursday.
Villarreal won the first leg 2-1 in Spain a week ago, but Nicolas Pepe’s second-half penalty handed Arteta’s side a crucial away goal.
“It’s a big moment,” the Spaniard said.
“Not for me but for the club, for everything that has happened in the last two years, in the last months.”
Arsenal reached the Europa League final in 2019 under current Villarreal boss Unai Emery, but were beaten 4-1 in Baku by Premier League rivals Chelsea.
“I think it will be really important and our biggest step forward if we are able to be in that final and have the opportunity to win that trophy.” Arteta said.
Winning the tournament offers Arsenal hope of playing in next season’s Champions League – but Arteta knows a fifth successive season without qualifying for Europe’s elite competition from their league position is far from ideal for the club.
“It is not what we want but there are a lot of things that have happened in that period for many reasons,” he said.
“One is because the level is being raised to a standard that is unprecedented in this league, and we are not the only club that has been out of that.
“But obviously no one accepts that situation and we want to change it straight away and this season we still have the opportunity to do that.”
Defender Kieran Tierney could make a return to the side for the first time since suffering a knee injury in the defeat to Liverpool in early April.
Alexandre Lacazette is also in contention after overcoming a hamstring issue, but centre-back David Luiz (hamstring) is unlikely to feature.
Emery cautious of ‘killer’ Aubameyang
Former Arsenal boss Emery has highlighted Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang as a danger man in the second leg.
The Gabon forward scored a hat-trick in the semi-final against Valencia two years ago, when Emery was still in charge at the club, to send the Gunners to the Europa League final.
“Aubameyang is a killer,” said Emery. “He was, he is and he will always be.
The Spaniard added: “He is there to work, to defend the team and give everything for the team, hoping he can perform at the top level and if that happens he is going to be very difficult to stop.”
Aubameyang came off the bench during the first leg in Spain after recovering from contracting malaria while on international duty in March.
The 31-year-old then netted Arsenal’s second goal – and assisted Mohamed Elneny’s opener – during the 2-0 win over Newcastle in the Premier League on Sunday.
Villarreal, who Emery joined as manager after being sacked by Arsenal in November 2019, hold a slender advantage going into Thursday’s second leg at the Emirates Stadium.
Despite Emery lifting the Europa League three consecutive times with Sevilla, the Spanish boss feels Villarreal are underdogs to reach the final in Gdansk, Poland on 26 May.
“Arsenal started as favourites and they are still favourites at this stage,” he said. “We will try to compete against this kind of team – those favourite teams – but the first-leg result is really narrow to make anything change.”
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