Mikel Arteta wanted this to be a “special night”, but instead it was a costly and painful one. Arsenal are out of the Europa League after Sporting beat them on penalties, and this was the worst way to lose.
By the end, Arteta’s side resembled the walking wounded, and any hope of resting players for the visit of Crystal Palace on Sunday were long gone. That was already a huge game but the importance of it has increased. Arsenal’s only focus is now the title and the perfect way to bounce back from defeat last night is to beat Palace and go eight points clear of Manchester City.
Arteta will need to lift his squad, though, as by the end of this last-16 tie all of his regular starters were on the pitch as they tried to find the goal that would spare them from penalties. William Saliba was the only one missing, with the centre-back forced to come off with a back injury. Takehiro Tomiyasu was another casualty, twisting his knee in the opening 10 minutes and leaving Emirates Stadium on crutches.
It could have been worse, too. Bukayo Saka was sent flying by a tackle that resulted in Manuel Ugarte getting a second yellow card with minutes left in extra-time. Goalkeeper Aaron Ramsdale needed extensive treatment after taking a ball to the face when he stopped Marcus Edwards making it 2-1.
To round off a miserable evening, it was Gabriel Martinelli who missed the decisive penalty after everyone else scored their’s. The Brazilian had been flying before this second leg, after scoring five goals in his past six games. Arteta will hope this does not take the wind out of his sails.
He will be thinking the same about his team, too, as Arteta had wanted to challenge on two fronts. The Spaniard believes in the power of momentum and now Arsenal have lost theirs. They cannot afford a repeat of what happened when they were knocked out of the FA Cup by Manchester City in January. Defeat in that competition led to three League games without a win.
“The disappointment is not going to go away, the disappointment is there now, but it brings clarity,” said Arteta. “There are 11 games to play now, 11 Premier League games and we have a final against Crystal Palace.”
Arsenal can now fully focus on the title and that could prove beneficial in the long run. Arteta has said they have “11 cup finals” and that means he can play his strongest team in every game now the fixture calendar has eased.
That will suit the manager, who has been reluctant to rotate all season. When he has, mainly in the Europa League, the Gunners have not been at their fluid best.
Certainly that was the case last night and Arsenal never kicked on after Granit Xhaka put them ahead midway through the first half. Instead, Sporting fought their way back into it and Pedro Goncalves’ wonder goal from just inside the Arsenal half summed up how it felt like this would be their night.
Arsenal need to quickly dust themselves down, and Palace at home looks like the ideal game to bounce back. The Eagles are without a manager and winless in their past 11 Premier League games. They have also failed to score in nine of their past 14 League matches, including the last four in a row.
With Manchester City in FA Cup action this weekend, the opportunity is there for Arsenal to strengthen their grip on top spot in the League and put last night behind them.