Villarreal v Arsenal: Europa League semi-final preview
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Arsenal record signing Nicolas Pepe can tonight prove Unai Emery was wrong to publicly admit he wanted to sign Wilfried Zaha instead of him. Emery brought Pepe to Arsenal for a fee of £72million in the summer of 2019. The Ivory Coast international has often flattered to deceive during his near two seasons at the Emirates but scored in both legs of the Europa League quarter-final win over Slavia Prague.
Arsenal were linked with Pepe’s international team-mate Wilfried Zaha during the same window they signed the winger.
Speaking last May, seven months after he was sacked as head coach, Emery revealed he told the club he preferred Zaha.
“We signed Pepe,” Emery told The Guardian. “He’s a good player but we didn’t know his character and he needs time, patience.
“I favoured someone who knew the league and wouldn’t need to adapt. Zaha won games on his own: Tottenham, Manchester City, us. Incredible performances. I told them: ‘This is the player I know and want.’
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“I met Zaha and he wanted to come. The club decided Pepe was one for the future. I said: ‘Yes, but we need to win now and this lad wins games.’ He beat us on his own.
“It’s also true he was expensive and Palace didn’t want to sell. There were a series of decisions that had repercussions.”
Pepe has rightly been criticised at times during his spell at Arsenal.
However, he hit double figures in goals for this season earlier this month, suggesting he is getting close to showcasing his best in England.
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And he will be desperate to put on a performance against Emery’s Villareal side tonight.
Arsenal travel to Spain for the first leg of their Europa League semi-final.
It is the first time the Gunners have gone up against Emery since his departure.
Pepe’s first task is to ensure he is in Mikel Arteta’s starting XI.
With Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette set to return from illness and injury respectively, the 25-year-old may find it difficult.
However, with five substitutions permitted in European competition, Pepe is likely to feature at some point tonight or in next week’s second leg at the Emirates.
Pepe has often saved his best for the Europa League, scoring five goals and contributing four assists despite just making eight starts in the competition this season.
It is undoubtedly Arsenal’s most important game of the campaign, as they hunt silverware and qualification for the Champions League.
However, Pepe has another motive to show to Emery he was wrong to doubt him.
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