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UEL preview: Arsenal, Chelsea one step from meeting in final

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If Thursday’s Europa League semifinal second legs even come close to living up to the Champions League drama we just enjoyed endured on Tuesday and Wednesday, we’ll be endlessly thankful for two days of rest before the Premier League title race gets settled on Sunday.

[ MORE: Tottenham pull off second amazing UCL comeback in two days ]

Arsenal, heading to Spain for the second leg, hold a 3-1 advantage over Valencia. Chelsea, meanwhile, have an away goal to their name after securing a 1-1 draw away to Eintracht Frankfurt last week.

Chelsea secured their top-four place in the PL on Sunday, and next season’s UCL qualification that comes with it. Arsenal, on the other hand, dropped points against 17th-place Brighton & Hove Albion and stand virtually no chance of overtaking Tottenham Hotspur for fourth (they trail their north London rivals by three points and eight goals in the goal differential column).

Winning the Europa League is the Gunners’ last (realistic) hope of avoiding Europe’s “other” competition for a third straight season and returning to the riches of club soccer’s biggest stage. Suffice to say, it’s a thoroughly intriguing subplot as these London clubs barrel toward a potential showdown at the final on May 29 in Azerbaijan.

[ MORE: Tearful Pochettino hails Spurs “heroes” after another UCL comeback ]

While Arsenal are winless in their last four PL outings (just one point, against Brighton), Unai Emery can point toward a series of stellar performances in the UEL, beginning with the second leg against Rennes in the round of 16, as a potential saving grace. After dropping the first leg 3-1 in France, Arsenal took care of business with a 3-0 victory at home. Since then, they brushed Napoli aside, 3-0 on aggregate, and hold what should be a comfortable lead over Valencia as they head to the Mestalla on Thursday.

Chelsea haven’t lost a game in Europe all season. They dropped just two points in the group stage, on the final day with their place in the knockout rounds long since secured, and were victorious in both legs prior to last week’s trip to Germany. So confident — and focused on finishing top-four in the PL — was Maurizio Sarri that he started the first leg with Eden Hazard on the bench before bringing him on for the final half-hour. However, the Blues are not likely to be without midfield engine N'Golo Kante after the Frenchman suffered a hamstring injury in their win over Watford.

Valencia condemns Nazi, monkey gestures of its fans at Arsenal

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VALENCIA, Spain (AP) Valencia has expressed “utter disgust and absolute intolerance” toward the fans who were filmed making Nazi salutes and monkey gestures during a Europa League semifinal.

The Spanish club says the “isolated gestures” that circulated on social media after Thursday’s game at Arsenal “in no way represent the Valencian fan base.”

Though the gestures “are completely unjustifiable,” Valencia seeks “more information about any possible provocations” involving Arsenal fans.

That comment “casts a doubt on the sincerity” of Valencia’s statement, says British anti-racism campaign group Kick It Out.

Valencia also says it is working to identify the fans filmed and will “take corresponding disciplinary action” if they are season-ticket holders.

The incident followed Arsenal’s 3-1 win in the first leg. The return is in Valencia next Thursday.

Europa League Roundup Arsenal comeback to win, Chelsea draw at Eintracht

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Against the run of play in the first half, Arsenal showed a clinical touch that has been missing from the side in recent weeks.

Alexandre Lacazette did not throw away his shots, scoring a brace as Arsenal defeated Valencia, 3-1, to take a lead in their UEFA Europa League semifinal tie. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, who set up Lacazette for his first, scored a goal in second half stoppage time to put Arsenal in a commanding position ahead of next week’s trip to the Mestalla.

Elsewhere, Chelsea used a goal from Pedro to come back and draw with Eintracht Frankfurt, 1-1 at the CommerzBank Arena in Frankfurt, Germany.

Lacazette’s pair of goals gave him four during this season’s Europa League, as Arsenal has seemed to prioritize European competition, especially at home, over the past couple of months.

In just the 11th minute at the Emirates Stadium, Mouctar Diakhaby got on the end of a Rodrigo header in the box and was quickest to react, scoring to put Valencia ahead and give the visitors a shock early lead.

To the Arsenal fans delight, the lead didn’t last long. In the 18th minute, Lacazette and Aubameyang combined to see Aubameyang played through, one-on-one with a Valencia defender. Aubameyang took Neto off his line before centering to Lacazette, who calmly finished into an open net.

Eight minutes later, Lacazette scored again as he headed home from a Granit Xhaka cross into the box, giving Arsenal the lead against the run of play.

The Gunners looked more likely to score in the second half, and Aubameyang finally found the net himself, volleying home off a Saed Kolasinac cross to give Arsenal some breathing room heading into the second leg.

Europa League preview: Chelsea, Arsenal meet big names

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There are only big boys left in the Europa League, and the tests awaiting Arsenal and Chelsea aren’t sleepy ones.

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The Gunners tangle with La Liga mainstays Valencia while their London rivals meet dangerous Bundesliga side Eintracht Frankfurt come Thursday in Germany.

Chelsea will neither have Antonio Rudiger nor Gary Cahill as options in the center of the park, meaning there’s only one safety net to go with Andreas Christensen and David Luiz in the middle.

“We are in trouble with the centre-backs. In the last two trainings we played with Cesar Azpilicueta as a centre-back because I think he is the only other one who can play there. So we are in trouble but this is normal as we have played about 58 games. In the past we were lucky with injuries but in the last 10 days not.”

Eintracht presents a huge problem with a variety of terrific attackers including Real Madrid target Luka Jovic.

Arsenal faces an opponent with similar challenges to itself when it comes to a return to the Champions League; Valencia sits sixth, three points back of Getafe and Sevilla. Only one of the three will go to the Champions League as La Liga’s fourth place team, unless Valencia wins the UEL.

Gunners boss Unai Emery used to run Valencia, well before he was a UEL force with Sevilla, but says not much has changed besides his age. From Arsenal.com:

“My career is about thinking about progressing and learning every day,” he said. “I was there for four years and I enjoyed it. I worked, I learned, I had some very good moments. I also have a lot of friends there, my son and some other big parts of my life.”

Europa League Roundup: Arsenal shutout Napoli; Eintracht, Valencia advance

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What road problems?

For the second consecutive match, Arsenal picked up a 1-0 win on the road, this time against even tougher competition. Arsenal beat Napoli, 1-0, and 3-0 on aggregate to advance to the Europa League semifinals. Alexandre Lacazette scored a terrific free kick from 30-yards out, taking advantage of Alex Meter shifting the wrong way.

[ STREAM: Every PL match live ]

In the second half, with Napoli needing four goals and pushing, Arsenal relied heavily on its centerback trio of Sokratis, Laurent Koscielny, and Nacho Monreal, with Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Saed Kolasinac helping in defense.

It’s a reversal of Arsenal’s recent fortunes, where before Monday, they hadn’t won on the road since February, including in the Europa League to Rennes. However, the 2-0 scoreline from the first leg really gave Arsenal the push and momentum it needed to get past a struggling Napoli side under Carlo Ancelotti.

Elsewhere, Valencia took care of languishing Villarreal in style with a 2-0 victory, winning 5-1 on aggregate, but the real drama took place in Germany.

With Eintracht Frankfurt trailing before kickoff by a pair of goals, the Eagles – well, both Benfica and Eintracht are the Eagles – managed to secure a 2-0 result to advance in the Europa League. Sebastian Rode’s second-half finish off an Ante Rebec pass has kept Eintracht’s season alive in Europe, where Luka Jovic can continue to market himself to the world’s biggest clubs.