Unai Emery insists 'a corner of my heart' is reserved for Arsenal
Unai Emery insists ‘there’s a corner of my heart reserved’ for Arsenal, as the Villarreal boss looks to stop his successor Mikel Arteta reaching the Europa League final 16 months on from his sacking
- Unai Emery is gearing up for an Arsenal reunion with his Villarreal side
- The Spaniard locks horns with his old side in the Europa League semi-final
- There are an array of promising signs from Emery’s tenure at Villarreal so far
Among the many nice things Unai Emery said about Arsenal on the eve of Thursday’s Europa League semi-final first leg, he slipped in a home truth: ‘Neither us, nor them, have the league route to the Champions League open to us.’
It wasn’t a dig — in fact, when asked about his successor, he described Mikel Arteta and Arsenal as ‘the perfect marriage’.
But it was a reminder that Arsenal are no closer to winning back their place in the top four since they cut short his 18-month spell in charge. He’s moved on, but he’ll never stop believing that, given longer, he would have been successful at the Emirates.
Villarreal are hoping Unai Emery is their golden ticket this season having won three Europa Leagues
Emery now faces his former employers Arsenal in the first leg of their semi-final on Thursday
He hasn’t got Villarreal in the top four either but he has got them within 180 minutes of their first European final. That’s more than enough credit to take him into next season at a club where patience is not at such a premium.
‘The performance was good; the result was bad,’ he said of Villarreal’s 2-1 defeat to Barcelona at the weekend. They have fallen short against the biggest teams this season and drawn more games, 13, than anyone in the division.
But there are plenty of promising signs of progress. Centre forward Gerard Moreno is having his best season ever and, with 20 goals, is the top Spanish scorer in La Liga. The 21-year-old winger Samu Chukwueze is fulfilling his potential, and centre back Pau Torres has played so well that Villarreal will do well to keep Real Madrid from signing him this summer.
Emery’s Villarreal have been inconsistent this season in the league but there are promising signs
Emery’s pride also came through in the frequent mentions of Paris Saint-Germain, Sevilla and Valencia. Why would there be emotional scars after Arsenal if he had already left big European clubs such as those three? ‘There’s a corner of my heart reserved for all of my ex-clubs,’ he said.
He will also have been tempted to answer Wednesday’s questions in English, just to remind us how he learned the language. In an interview with Sportsmail a year ago, with the wounds still fresh from his sacking, he said he felt that he hadn’t always been cut the slack he deserved.
‘When I said “good ebening” instead of “good evening” after a good result it was just a joke, when we were losing it was a disgrace,’ he said.
Emery remains a quirky coach. He was teased earlier in the season for struggling with the pronunciation of Chukwueze. He has also been targeted by the nation’s top sports impersonator Raul Perez who brilliantly mimics his traffic-cop gesticulations from the technical area.
Gerard Moreno (second right) and Samu Chukwueze (third from right) are in good form
Emery has moved on from Arsenal but will not stop believing he could have been a success
But as Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta was at pains to point out, he has a big heart, too.
‘I know a lot of people who work with him and they all say the same thing which is that he’s a fantastic man, a great manager but they highlight the man behind it is as well,’ said Arteta when revealing Emery had called him when he took over from him at the end of 2019.
Emery said that chat had been set up by a mutual friend as opposed to arranged by him, and that it was as much about offering his house in Barnet as anything else. But you can imagine the subject of London accommodation soon being replaced by one of formations and tactics.
Emery remains as intense as ever. Arriving bright and early at training on Wednesday he spotted a player also in early for an interview and took advantage by having a one-to-one session with him to the point where the player’s interview was put back.
For all that he has played it down in recent days, there is no doubting how much he wants to win this game. ‘It’s true I know some of their players,’ he said. ‘But I have to translate that knowledge to my own players.’
He will have left no stone unturned in trying to do exactly that ahead of Thursday’s game.
Emery also described successor Mikel Arteta and Arsenal as ‘the perfect marriage’
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