Alexandre Lacazette’s first Europa League goal of the season secured Arsenal a straightforward 1-0 home win over Qarabag as Unai Emery took the opportunity to blood young and returning players in a pressure-free match.
The Gunners were confirmed as winners of Europa League Group E after their 3-0 win over Vorskla, and Emery handed Laurent Koscielny his first competitive start since last season’s semi-final, while Mesut Ozil made his first appearance after a back injury.
With Qarabag already eliminated from the competition, the game was played like an exhibition match, but there were flashes of brilliance from 17-year-old midfielder Bukayo Saka, making his first start for Arsenal on the left wing.
Lacazette’s eighth goal of the season in the 16th minute settled the game, allowing Emery to turn his focus to pushing Arsenal into the Premier League’s top four.
Saka had a swerving effort from the edge of the box saved by Qarabag goalkeeper Vagner after nine minutes, moments before Mesut Ozil played in Lacazette, who took a touch to beat his marker before rifling home from the corner of the six-yard box.
When Maksim Medvedev had the opportunity to hit back for the visitors from a cross that found him at the far post, he was denied by a challenge by Sokratis Papasthathopoulos whose effortless defending set the tone for the rest of Arsenal’s evening.
Saka missed the chance to become Arsenal’s youngest European goal-scorer when fellow academy product Zech Medley’s cross fell to him on the edge of the six-yard box, but his shot deflected wide, and the teenager then put Ozil through for another squandered chance.
Eddie Nketiah had a wonderful effort ruled out when Saka curled the ball on to his head and he diverted it into the net, only to see the offside flag raised. And Saka himself missed a golden opportunity to score when Vagner denied him at point-blank range in the last minute.
What does it mean? Ozil looks ready for anything
Ozil looked sharp and lively throughout as Emery tested his readiness to return to Premier League action. There were no apparent ill effects for Koscielny, who was solid for 71 minutes as he made his return after an Achilles injury.
Saka shines on the big stage
Anyone who has watched Arsenal’s U23s this season already knew about Saka, and after his performance Emery knows the youngster has the confidence to match his talent.
Qarabag sack it off
It would be unfair to pick out a single Qarabag player for criticism on a night when Gurban Gurbanov’s men showed little interest in making a game of it.
Arsenal travel to Southampton where a win could elevate them to third in the Premier League, while Qarabag are at home against Kesle.
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