Nicolas Pepe’s match-winning cameo for Arsenal was hailed as “perfect” by Unai Emery as the club-record signing spared the blushes of his head coach.
The £72million summer arrival from Lille scored a brace of free-kicks to seal an undeserved 3-2 Europa League victory over Vitoria.
The Group F clash appeared to be heading in the direction of the Portuguese side after they twice took the lead at the Emirates Stadium, only for substitute Pepe to convert two set-pieces – the second of which came in stoppage time.
After losing at Sheffield United on Monday night, Emery launched an impassioned defence of his tenure as Gunners boss on the eve of the Group F clash – but what followed was as below-par performance rescued by the brilliance of Pepe, who until then had struggled to live up to his hefty price-tag.
Without a goal from their first two games and with no away win in Europe since 2005, Vitoria stunned the home fans as former Tottenham winger Marcus Edwards opened the scoring before Bruno Duarte restored the lead following Gabriel Martinelli’s equaliser.
With more than one “Emery Out” banner displayed and the crowd singing for Mesut Ozil – again absent from the matchday squad – it was clear Emery’s calls for patience from supporters had largely fallen on deaf ears.
But the stadium erupted as Pepe took centre stage late on.
“We are very happy for him and for us because those two goals, from two set-pieces, were perfect,” Emery said of the 24-year-old.
“He was trying a lot of set-piece shooting on the training ground last week and I was watching his shooting.
“The most important thing is the three points and that some individual players can improve, that they can take confidence for us and for them.
“Every player, usually, they need time to adapt. Pepe is a very good player and we believe in him, totally.
“The way he’s going, sometimes he feels better, sometimes it’s with more difficulty on the pitch.
“He’s improving and tonight those two goals are really important for us first, and then secondly for him.
“He’s continuing the adaptation in his process and as soon as he can adapt, that’s better for us.”
Who else? 🤷♂️— Arsenal (@Arsenal) October 24, 2019
Emery refused to comment on the continued ostracism of Ozil, who has not featured in any of the last five matches.
Meanwhile, Vitoria remain without a point despite such a spirited performance, achieved with a lengthy injury list and a number of players rested for the weekend Primeira Liga match with Sporting.
“We are sad,” admitted defender Frederico Venacio after the game.
“Losing a game in the last second is hard on any team, especially after the excellent performance we made.
“We worked well, in a fantastic stadium and under a fantastic environment. Unfortunately, tiredness got the better of us in the final moments and two amazing free-kicks made the difference.”
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