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Johnny Phillips: Unai Emery looking the real deal again

The restoration of Unai Emery’s reputation as a top European head coach has been pleasing to witness. Sometimes managers take the wrong job at the wrong time and that appears to have been the case with Emery during his brief stay in the Premier League.

Villareal players celebrate end of the Champions League
Villareal players celebrate end of the Champions League

The man from the Basque Country had already shown his credentials before he moved to England. His success in returning Champions’ League qualification to Valencia was followed by a Europa League triumph with Sevilla. Arsenal snapped him up from Paris Saint Germain, where his stay was most notable for winning the French league title in 2017/18, secured with a 7-1 win over title rivals Monaco. There were setbacks too, though, including an infamous Champions’ League defeat to Barcelona the previous season in the knockout stages. Leading 4-0 from the first leg at the Parc de Princes, PSG lost the second leg 6-1 at the Nou Camp.

That defeat did not do lasting damage to his reputation but what followed during 18 months in North London left scars that needed time to heal. It was no easy task replacing Arsene Wenger at the Emirates Stadium in the summer of 2018. Despite the challenges, Unai Emery’s first season was not wholly unsuccessful. A fifth-placed finish saw his side miss out on Champions’ League qualification but he took the club to the Europa League final. The event turned into a farce, with supporters of the two London sides in the fixture making a 6,000-mile round trip to Baku in Azerbaijan for the match. Chelsea’s 4-1 win made the return trip particularly arduous for Arsenal’s fans.

The Gunners’ transfer window ahead of the 2019/20 season was not a good one, with Emery breaking the club’s transfer record to sign Nicolas Pepe for a fee of £72 million. He also brought in David Luiz from Chelsea. Neither signing worked and it was not long before the season unravelled amid stories of dressing room discord and poor communication. Mesut Ozil became a puzzling distraction that could not be resolved. Emery was unfairly ridiculed for his poor English, despite it being no worse than other Premier League managers such as Mauricio Pochettino. Following a seven-game winless run he was sacked in November.

Emery had to wait until the following summer before gaining employment again, as the new head coach of Villareal. His first season was a great success. Not only did it include a club record of 19 matches without defeat, but he also lead the The Yellow Submarine to Europa League glory. Fittingly there was a semi-final win over Arsenal along the way, before that epic penalty shoot-out to secure victory against Manchester United in the final.

This season could now go one step better, after the stunning result in midweek at the Allianz Arena – a stadium that can hold one and a half times the population of Villareal. Bayern Munich were sent crashing out of the Champions League after Samuel Chukwueze's 88th-minute strike secured a dramatic 2-1 aggregate victory for the underdogs.

Villarreal had been deserving winners in the first leg, a game in which they were unfortunate not to come away with more than just a one goal lead. Bayern boss Julian Nagelsmann insisted there would be no repeat of his side's first leg struggles, but that proved not to be the case back in Germany.

Emery deserves immense credit for the European campaign he has masterminded so far. Villarreal pulled off a stunning 3-0 win away to Juventus to secure their spot in the last eight but their elimination of Bayern, who sit nine points clear at the top of the Bundesliga, was even more impressive.

Emery outmanoeuvred his counterpart in the first leg but Tuesday's second leg performance, in the imposing Allianz Arena where Bayern had racked up 20 goals in just their previous six games, went one better.

They defended solidly, shutting off the spaces Bayern like to operate in and instead forced the German side to resort to a succession of percentage balls from the wider areas of the pitch. When Villareal did have the opportunity to mount attacks of their own they did so in a measured and deliberate manner, eventually culminating in Chukwueze's decisive goal.

Emery’s side include several recognisable faces from the English game. Etienne Capoue, Juan Foyth and Giovani Lo Celso were rescued from their struggles at Tottenham Hotspur and have found some great form in Spain. Francis Coquelin made the journey from Arsenal to the Spanish east coast and is similarly thriving. None could have imagined they would become Champions’ League semi-finalists this season.

Emery's men are now just three games away from becoming just the second team in history, after Jose Mourinho's Porto, to follow up a triumph in Europe's secondary club competition with Champions League success the following season. Maybe that is looking too far ahead at this stage, especially with a semi-final against Liverpool lying in wait. Whatever the outcome of that game, though, Emery has already banished the memories of that unfortunate spell in north London.

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