LONDON: The prospect of an all-English final in Baku, Azerbaijan, in the Europa League moved closer after semi-finals first legs in which Arsenal defeated Valencia 3-1 Chelsea forced a 1-1 draw away to Eintracht Frankfurt.
In north London Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang hit the goals as Arsenal came from behind to beat Valencia. The France forward netted a first-half brace, with strike partner Aubameyang adding the gloss in the final minute.
Mouctar Diakhaby had headed in a deserved opener for Valencia but the LaLiga outfit have it all to do in the return leg.
Lacazette scored Arsenal’s goal as they crashed out at this stage of the competition last season and also for Lyon in a semi-final defeat two years ago – this time around he will be hoping his double is enough to help the Gunners into the final in Baku on May 29.
Heading into the game on the back of three consecutive Premier League defeats, winning the Europa League appears to now be Arsenal’s best chance of securing a return to the Champions League for next season.
But it was Valencia who would start the game brightly, captain Daniel Parejo dinking in a free-kick for Rodrigo to cross to Ezequiel Garay – only for the defender to clear the crossbar with a close-range chance.
Arsenal did not heed that warning and fell behind soon after, Diakhaby heading in from two yards out after Rodrigo headed a corner back across goal.
Ainsley Maitland-Niles almost gifted Marcelino’s side a second with only 15 minutes on the clock.
The wing-back attempted to head a loose ball back to Petr Cech after the goalkeeper had pushed Parejo’s shot away but could only direct it onto the boot of the onrushing Goncalo Guedes for the ball to drop over the crossbar.
Just as Arsenal looked like getting overrun, they equalised completely against the run of play as Aubameyang broke clear and, with Valencia goalkeeper Neto opting to rush from his line and ending up nowhere near the ball, had the presence of mind to poke a pass for Lacazette to tuck home.
Seven minutes later and Arsenal were ahead, Granit Xhaka crossing for Lacazette to head in his 18th goal of the season – Neto again at fault as he could only push the ball onto the post with referee Clement Turpin confirming it had crossed the line.
Aubameyang should have done better with his first clear opening of the night but shot into the ground and over the bar from another Xhaka cross.
Valencia responded after the interval and were back on the front-foot immediately, Diakhaby seeing his long-range drive blocked behind as they pushed for an equaliser.
Arsenal slowly wrestled back a level of control and Lacazette should have sealed his hat-trick but instead passed up two fine opportunities.
He made poor contact with a header from an Aubameyang cross before failing to beat Neto from five yards out soon after.
Marcelino introduced Kevin Gameiro off the bench in the hope of finding an equaliser and he drew a smart save from Cech, potentially playing his last game on English soil before his retirement.
But, with the Arsenal defence soaking up any further pressure, the home side extended their advantage as Aubameyang tucked home Sead Kolasinac’s cross at the back post.
Pedro’s crucial strike scrambled Chelsea a frenetic 1-1 draw at Eintracht Frankfurt.
The Spain forward’s 12th strike of the season brought Blues parity in the tie – and a valuable away goal – after Luka Jovic headed the hosts into the lead.
Chelsea had to battle a hostile and raucous home crowd at the Commerzbank Arena, on a night where Ruben Loftus-Cheek shone.
Loftus-Cheek laid on Pedro’s goal and bossed midfield every time Chelsea dominated. The Blues’ biggest problem, however, was maintaining that kind of control.
Head coach Maurizio Sarri will probably be relatively satisfied with this result, but Chelsea will hope not to rue missed chances in next Thursday’s return leg.
Andreas Christensen was lucky to avoid a red card on tense night for the Blues’ stretched defence.
Sarri’s men felt pressure build through the absence of injured duo Antonio Rudiger and Gary Cahill, even before Eintracht powered into early control.
Jorginho had to be patched up after a clash of heads, sporting a sizeable bandage for the majority of the second half.
Olivier Giroud survived a furious Frankfurt appeal for a penalty, with the ball hitting the France forward’s body inside the area.
But despite all the setbacks and a worryingly sluggish start, Chelsea still merited the draw.
Sarri left Eden Hazard on the bench, insisting the Belgium talisman was too tired to be involved from the off, and that led to a timid start, the Blues in disarray at the back and unable to find any rhythm.
Christensen was rightly booked for a lunging tackle on Sebastian Rode, and then the unmarked home skipper David Abraham blazed over from the resulting free-kick.
Chelsea failed to heed the warning signs and leaked a poor goal in the 23rd minute to compound their poor start.
Filip Kostic cantered down the left after Giroud ceded possession cheaply, before whipping in a neat cross.
A stooping Jovic flicked the ball to the far corner, but failed to add power to his effort. So when the ball bounced past Kepa Arrizabalaga and into the net, Chelsea looked stunned.
Christensen’s nervy night continued unabated when he upended Mijat Gacinovic as the pair tangled battling for a header.
Referee Carlos Del Cerro Grande opted not even to award a foul however, in a huge reprieve for both Chelsea and their Denmark defender.
Finally Chelsea settled though, Loftus-Cheek drilling just wide and Willian cutting back when space had opened up for a shot.
And just when the Blues feared being thwarted in the first half, Loftus-Cheek teed up Pedro and the Spaniard blasted home.
Jorginho returned to action after a nasty-looking clash of heads with Rode, pressing on after being bandaged up.
Loftus-Cheek fired over from a gilt-edged opening after exchanging passes with Pedro on a fine Chelsea break, before David Luiz saw a whipped free-kick tipped to safety via the bar from home goalkeeper Kevin Trapp.
Chelsea raised the tempo again, Hazard stepping into the fray and Loftus-Cheek continuing to boss the game.
Luiz flicked Hazard’s free-kick goalwards, only for Trapp to pull off a smart save.
Eintracht remained dangerous on the counter though, and Chelsea even avoided censure despite strong home claims for a Giroud handball following a corner.
Abraham headed over from a corner at point-blank range, and then Makoto Hasebe was hounded out by N’Golo Kante after Chelsea lost possession just outside their own box as the Premier League side came away from Germany with a draw.