Villarreal boss Unai Emery praises eleven Arsenal players and Mikel Arteta ahead of Europa League semi-final

Villarreal manager Unai Emery has hailed a number of his former Arsenal players
Villarreal manager Unai Emery has hailed a number of his former Arsenal players (Picture: Getty)

Villarreal boss Unai Emery has praised a number of his former Arsenal players and his replacement at the Emirates, Mikel Arteta, ahead of this week’s Europa League semi-final.

Spanish side Villarreal face Premier League club Arsenal for a place in the Europa League final, with Manchester United meeting Roma in the other semi-final tie.

Emery, who won this competition three times with Sevilla, spent 18 months at Arsenal before being sacked in November 2019 and replaced by Arteta.

The Spaniard took over at Villarreal last summer and is bidding to take the club to their first major final at the expense of his former employees.

‘Arsenal’s history is renowned throughout the world,’ Emery told UEFA. ‘I am lucky enough to have coached over there, although it ended in unwanted circumstances.

‘I have great memories from my time at Arsenal. We experienced great moments together on the pitch, like reaching and preparing for the [Europa League] final against Chelsea. Those are great memories but now we are on different teams.

‘There are a lot of players that are still there, players who started their careers with me as their coach. I always tell this little anecdote about Bukayo Saka.

The Gunners have endured a difficult season under Mikel Arteta
The Gunners have endured a difficult season under Mikel Arteta (Picture: Getty)

‘He made his [Premier League] debut on 1 January [2019] against Fulham, which I remember we won 4-1. I think it kicked off at 12:30, and he played the last eight to ten minutes and didn’t touch the ball. Now he’s establishing himself at a high level.

‘Many of the players I coached are still there. I have fond memories of them: Hector Bellerin, [Calum] Chambers, [Rob] Holding: exceptional guys; [Mohamed] Elneny, who is an extraordinary player and an extraordinary person.

‘They have [Alexandre] Lacazette, [Pierre-Emerick] Aubameyang, [Gabriel] Martinelli, who is becoming more important now after a serious injury.

‘[Nicolas] Pepe is also an important player, who I think is settling and getting more and more confident.

‘Then you have the younger players such as [Emile] Smith Rowe. Smith Rowe played the pre-season with us at the age of 17, and he has gradually grown after loan spells away.

Emery says he enjoyed working with a number of Arsenal stars
Emery says he enjoyed working with a number of Arsenal stars (Picture: Getty)

‘You also have [Bernd] Leno, who is a great goalkeeper and good with his feet. He has significant experience.’

Following an encouraging first season at Arsenal – in which the club won the FA Cup – Arteta has struggled this season, with the Gunners slipping to 10th in the Premier League this weekend.

But Emery said: ‘Mikel is putting his own stamp on things – in the way they play, it’s easy to identify he’s bringing back that Arsenal tradition of playing attractive football.

‘His first steps as Pep Guardiola’s assistant have helped him to position himself in this new profession which is being the manager.

‘Now he has been given this opportunity at Arsenal, and I think it’s a good place to develop because he is much loved by Arsenal thanks to the time he spent in the team.

‘He had his time [playing] there with Arsene Wenger so I’m sure he can apply everything he learned. I think it’s a good marriage: Arteta-Arsenal, Arsenal-Arteta.’

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Emery also insisted that Arsenal are a ‘top team’ on their day – but says he is determined to lead Villarreal to the Europa League final.

He added: ‘When Arsenal are in form, they are a top team. We’ve seen that this season. But so are we when we find our form.

‘So in terms of confidence, the demands, the respect we have for the opponent, this semi-final will be full of tension and both teams will do their utmost to get through, which is what makes this competition such a great one.

‘I want to win for myself and for Villarreal. [Two years ago] I was defending Arsenal’s red [and white] colours in that final against Chelsea, now I feel that affinity for the yellow of Villarreal.

‘I have that competitive instinct, that responsibility I owe the club and everyone I represent with my decisions. I did that proudly when I was at Arsenal, now I’ll do that at Villarreal.

‘I will have to put aside my feelings for Arsenal, and I will have to put all my energies into making sure that the Yellow Submarine gets the upper hand in the tie.’

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