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PREVIEW: Sporting CP v Arsenal

A look ahead to Arsenal’s Europa League tie against Sporting on Thursday night.

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Image Credit: Getty Images

European glory has long evaded Arsenal. Even at their invincible best, the Champions League remained a step too far for the Gunners. The development and globalisation of Europe’s secondary competition, the Europa League, also slipped through Arsenal’s fingers in that painful night in Baku not too long ago. So what will Arsenal’s European story look like this year?

The answer is not straightforward. This competition means different things for different fans. For some, it eradicates the dark mark on Arsenal’s history of little significant European success and would be another trophy under Arteta’s belt. For others, whilst those facts remain true, the primary outcome of winning the competition is the gate-key into the ultimate European tournament, the Champions League. By topping their group, Arsenal were rewarded by avoiding the additional qualification round and playing their first leg away, to have the “more important” fixture supported by their fans at home. 

Arsenal went out of the EFL Cup very early on, and lost to Manchester City in the 4th round of the FA Cup in February. Should they find themselves out of Europe by next Thursday, they will only have 11 games left in their season to focus on, whereas their title rivals City could have as many as 21 if they are to progress to the final of their remaining competitions. City have made it clear they have a real desire this season, perhaps even a need to win the Champions League now they have added the supposed final puzzle piece in Erling Haaland. With the level being significantly higher in their competition, City will also be forced to play their strongest XI in each game, another benefit awarded unto Arsenal. 

It seems as each week passes, the likelihood of this competition being taken as seriously as it might have been in the summer, decreases. Arsenal have nearly guaranteed Champions League football from their league position alone. Imagine the outcry if Arsenal were to crumble in the league under City’s pressure and then collapse in the semi-finals of the Europa League because of a lack of clarity and decision making in which glory to chase. Arsenal fans, and indeed rival fans, would never let them forget that. Arteta knows this. The Board knows this. Everyone does. So what happens?

Arteta will rotate. We know this from his approach even from Gameweek 1. Injuries, dips in form and recruitments in January mean the squad might look quite different from those early games, but Arsenal are nearly at a position to rotate all 11 players. 

Sporting are unbeaten in 5 games, and have some dangerous wide forwards who will look to hurt Arsenal. Pedro Goncalves is due a big summer move this year, and his form this season continues to impress. The strong, ambipedal Portuguese winger has 18 goal involvements in the league this season. He will look to collect the ball wide on the left and drift inside. Like Grealish, but with more direct, clinical passing. On the other flank, Marucs Edwards will look to burn past his opposition fullback. Edwards should be a name well known to Arsenal (and Tottenham) fans. Scoring on his debut for previous club Vitoria de Guimaraes against Arsenal in this competition, he has since gone on to haunt both North London clubs, including a goal in both legs against his former club Spurs earlier this season. Continuing that link to North London, Sporting’s most creative outlet this season, Pedro Porro, recently signed for Spurs. Not only this, but Sporting replaced the wingback with the ex-Arsenal man Hector Bellerin. Whilst no longer operating with the blistering pace Arsenal fans were used to, Bellerin will look to impress on his return and I expect him to receive a warm welcome from his former team. 

It’s hard to accurately predict what to expect from Arsenal, because a lot of the team won’t have played together. As I write this, no formal update has been issued on Trossard or Nketiah, who both would have previously been a shoe-in for this game. The core principles and playstyle will remain, with the wide forwards looking to be fluid and creative, but who operates in those positions is yet to be seen. 

Losing is not a culture or phenomenon Arteta will ever encourage. Instead, I expect him to remove all the pressure from the boys and reward them whatever the result. If they are to win and progress, that same group will be tasked with each remaining European game. Should they lose, he will put an arm round them and look to inspire them, with many potentially being called upon in the title-run in. In this respect, this game feels like a win/win scenario.

There are ways to bow out of tournaments, shown against City in the FA Cup this year. If Arsenal could replicate that, I for one, wouldn’t be hugely upset. 

Score prediction: Sporting 1-1 Arsenal 


Predicted Sporting Starting XI:


St Juste – Coates – Reis 

Bellerin – Ugarte – Morita – Santos

Goncalves – Edwards



Predicted Arsenal Starting XI:


Tomiyasu – Holding – Kiwior – Tierney

Vieira – Jorghino – Xhaka

Nelson – Martinelli – Smith Rowe

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