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Unai Emery Says Top-4 Finish Still Arsenal's 'First Priority' over UEL Win

James Dudko@@JamesDudkoFeatured ColumnistMay 3, 2019

LONDON, ENGLAND - MAY 02: Arsenal manager \ Head coach Unai Emery during the UEFA Europa League Semi Final First Leg match between Arsenal and Valencia at Emirates Stadium on May 2, 2019 in London, England. (Photo by James Williamson - AMA/Getty Images)
James Williamson - AMA/Getty Images

Arsenal appear on the cusp of reaching the UEFA Europa League final, but head coach Unai Emery is still focusing more on finishing in the top four of the Premier League.

Emery, who won the Europa League three years running while in charge of Sevilla, thinks the right domestic finish is a better route back into the UEFA Champions League than lifting Europe's second-tier trophy again.

Speaking ahead of Sunday's home game against Brighton & Hove Albion, Emery told Sky Sports News:

"My message is the same for the team and the supporters, our first priority continues to be the Premier League. If we win our match against Brighton, then we are going to play our last match against Burnley with the possibility to be in the top four.

"The second (priority) is the Europa League. We need to play the second leg in Valencia but it is going to be difficult. For us, the Premier League is the first competition where we want to do something important this year."

Those words are somewhat surprising since Arsenal beat Valencia 3-1 in the first leg of the Europa League semi-final on Thursday. Goals from Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang put the Gunners in a strong position ahead of next Thursday's return game at the Mestalla.

Eurosport UK @Eurosport_UK

Why so serious? 🃏 Arsenal's forwards were too powerful for Valencia at the Emirates 💪 (🎨 - @ZEZO_CARTOONS) https://t.co/rBQ3gYJhCo

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A commanding aggregate lead, combined with Emery's proven track record in the competition, make winning the Europa League seem like Arsenal's most realistic means of earning Champions League football.

Goal @goal

Valencia's manager has warned Arsenal that the tie is far from over 👀 https://t.co/vHnv8HW10b

ITV Football @itvfootball

Unai Emery is not getting ahead of himself after @Arsenal's #EuropaLeague victory Will the Gunners progress to the @EuropaLeague final? 🏆 https://t.co/vjF2D4jn9N https://t.co/QFF0sfiNvm

It appears more likely than finishing in the top four domestically. The Gunners are embroiled in a four-way tussle for one of the final two Champions League places with Tottenham Hotspur, Chelsea and Manchester United.

Spurs are third and four points above their north London rivals in fifth with two matches left to play. Chelsea remain fourth, two points ahead of Arsenal and with a superior goal difference, while United remain a point adrift of the Gunners.

It's why facing the Seagulls is a must-win for Emery's men this Sunday. Arsenal's home form has been strong, save for a recent 3-2 loss to Crystal Palace, but things have been different for the Gunners on their travels.

Arsenal have won just six league matches away from home, with only two of those victories coming during this calendar year. Having to face Burnley at Turf Moor on the season's final day adds another reason to doubt the Gunners' ability to finish in the top four for the first time since 2016.

Emery needs to show tangible improvement from Wenger's final season at Arsenal.
Emery needs to show tangible improvement from Wenger's final season at Arsenal.Francois Mori/Associated Press

While it's still mathematically possible, Emery can't declare he is focused fully on the Europa League or rest players for domestic matches to prove it. Even so, it's tough to believe simply finishing third or fourth without silverware would be considered a successful first season in charge for Emery.

He would have improved on the sixth place Arsene Wenger managed in his final campaign in charge. Yet booking a return to the Champions League by winning a European trophy, something Arsenal haven't done since claiming the 1994 Cup Winners' Cup, would surely be a better, more memorable achievement.

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