Soccer

Arsenal, Chelsea take initiative in semifinals of Europa League

AP

The possibility of an all-English final in the Europa League grew likelier after Arsenal and Chelsea moved into strong positions in the semifinals on Thursday.

Arsenal will take a 3-1 lead into the second leg against Valencia after coming from behind through two goals by France striker Alexandre Lacazette and a 90th-minute volley from Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang at Emirates Stadium.

Chelsea also rallied to earn a 1-1 draw at Eintracht Frankfurt, with Pedro Rodriguez scoring the potentially crucial away goal in Germany to extend his team’s unbeaten run in the competition to 16 games — a record.

Neither Arsenal nor Chelsea is guaranteed a top-four finish in the Premier League, which earns automatic qualification for next season’s Champions League. Winning the Europa League also offers that reward, which is why the teams have taken the competition seriously.

The final is in Baku, Azerbaijan, on May 29.

It had previously been a disappointing week in Europe for English clubs, with Tottenham and Liverpool losing the first legs of their Champions League semifinals against Ajax (1-0) and Barcelona (3-0), respectively.

A three-time winner of the competition with Sevilla, Unai Emery is on course for another Europa League final in his first season at Arsenal.

He has his lethal strike partnership to thank for that.

The potency of Lacazette and Aubameyang continues to make up for Arsenal’s weakness at the back, which was exposed again when Valencia took the lead off a corner in the 11th minute. A delivery to the far post was headed back across the face of goal by Rodrigo, and Mouctar Diakhaby rose above Arsenal midfielder Granit Xhaka to nod in from close range.

Arsenal has been saving its best performances for the Europa League of late — back-to-back wins over Napoli in the quarterfinals were followed by three straight losses in the Premier League — and the English team hit back almost immediately through Lacazette in the 18th.