Usually a rotational option under Unai Emery, the winger’s recent form means he could be trusted against the Gunners next week
Even though every match against Barcelona ought to be bigger than most other fixtures, the context of Villarreal’s season suggests Unai Emery will have one eye on next week’s Europa League semi-final first-leg clash with Arsenal ahead of Sunday’s bout.
As is typically the case in the media, the fact the former Gunners boss will be facing his old side for a place in the decider probably dominates pre-match headlines. However, the clash is hugely important for the Yellow Submarine owing to the privileges that winning the competition gives them.
In fact, both clubs have a lot riding on the result of the games owing to the promise of Champions League qualification for the winners of Europe’s secondary club competition. Emery’s team may be one point short of fifth-placed Real Sociedad, but an 18-point deficit from Sevilla in fourth means CL qualification via the league is mathematically impossible.
While Mikel Arteta’s troops could still mathematically end in the Premier League’s top four, their chances of UCL qualification via their league position are slim.
Therefore, the Europa League semi-finalists are in the same boat heading into next week’s encounter with the London giants on their turf. Given the importance of the tie, an upswing in Samuel Chukwueze’s performances recently ought to be gratifying to the ex-Arsenal boss.
His Yellow Submarine side are prone to leaning on the consistency of Gerard Moreno, who has scored or assisted in eight of his last 10 appearances for club and country, contributing just over half of the team’s 49 goals in La Liga.
That over-reliance somewhat explains why a side that has lost the fewest games outside the division’s top four sides are so far behind Sevilla on 67 points. Their 13 draws, joint-highest in the league, means a decent-to-good backline hasn’t been helped by a blunt attack that’s scored one goal or fewer in 18 of their 32 top flight games to date.
Chukwueze’s recent upsurge in the final third is therefore music to his coach’s ears as an added threat in that area of the pitch gives a more menacing feel to the Yellow Submarine, who often look like a one-man wrecking ball.
A lively display in their reverse fixture against Dinamo Zagreb in Spain was followed by an equally dynamic showing in the 5-1 thrashing of Levante last week. The former ended a month-long run without a goal contribution while his brace in the league encounter a week ago saw him end a goal drought that began in November and was the wide attacker’s first in top flight football.
The aforementioned encounters also saw the West African equal his dribbles completed tally in one game (seven) while his progressive ball-carrying in the last fortnight has helped to carry his team upfield.
Admittedly, the recent upswing has occurred in a small sample size of games so the excitement may be short-lived, still, the timing of these recent performances (he’s been directly involved in three goals in as many games) couldn’t be timelier.
“He’s a very young player who has to find consistency,” Emery told the club website after the Nigerian ended a run of five months without scoring. “We need to take steps forward with him and be demanding.
“He’s a footballer with great quality. He has a lot of talent, but he needs to improve in front of goal. [Against Levante] he put in a great performance and managed to score.”
Underlying statistics reveal the 21-year-old leads the way for shot-creating actions per 90 for Villarreal this term, while he sits third behind Moreno and Paco Alcacer for goal-creating actions per 90 among teammates to play significant minutes this season.
Having said that, Chukwueze’s raw numbers still underwhelm and there’s a feeling he needs to find the necessary final-third killer instinct if he’s to take his game to the next level.
Barcelona are the away side this weekend, but Emery probably believes Arsenal’s visit to Estadio de la Ceramica is the bigger game.
That conclusion may seem bizarre to the uneducated fan or neutral; be that as it may, success over the Gunners takes them closer to ending their five-year absence from rubbing shoulders with Europe’s elite and Chukwueze’s seeming improvement in the final third increases their chances of going past Arteta’s hungry team.