Preview: Sporting Lisbon vs. Arsenal
Resuming their quest for an elusive continental crown, Arsenal travel to the Estadio Jose Alvalade XXI for the first leg of their Europa League last-16 clash with Sporting Lisbon on Thursday night.
The Gunners progressed as winners from Group A to set up a tie with Ruben Amorim’s former Champions League contenders, who dished out a 5-1 beating to FC Midtjylland in the playoffs.
Already familiar with North London after doing battle with Tottenham Hotspur during the group stage of the Champions League, Sporting’s efforts to pip Spurs and Eintracht Frankfurt to a top-two spot proved futile, as they settled for a third-placed berth and spot in Europe’s second-tier tournament as a result.
Entering their knockout round playoff tie against Midtjylland as the overwhelming favourites to progress, Sporting were indebted to a stoppage-time Sebastian Coates equaliser in a 1-1 first-leg draw, but they turned up the heat in Denmark, storming to a 4-0 success to enter the hat for the last-16 draw.
Dreams of a domestic and continental double are surely unfounded for Amorim’s men, though, as Sporting occupy fourth place in the Primeira Liga table and are a whopping 15 points behind runaway leaders Benfica, despite winning their last three top-flight games.
A 77th-minute strike from Paulinho was enough to propel Sporting to a 1-0 win at Portimonense on Saturday – their fourth win on the bounce in all tournaments and third clean sheet in succession – but only two of their last four home matches in all tournaments have ended in victory.A
Still waiting to add to their sole European triumph from the 1963-64 European Cup Winners’ Cup, Sporting’s only Europa League last-16 exit in its current format came against eventual winners Atletico Madrid in 2009-10 – a good omen for Arsenal if they can make lightning strike twice in Portugal.
Bypassing an extra two games in the knockout round playoffs was a necessity for Arsenal amid their remarkable Premier League title charge, and a lowly 2-0 loss to PSV Eindhoven proved inconsequential as the Gunners topped Europa League Group A with 15 points from 18 on offer.
Since last taking to the field in continental competition, Mikel Arteta’s young guns have managed to keep Manchester City at bay in the English top flight and hold a five-point advantage at the top with 12 games left to play, although their unassailable lead would have been reduced had it not been for one of the most dramatic last-minute goals the Emirates will ever witness.
After falling behind to Philip Billing and Marcos Senesi’s efforts against Bournemouth, Arsenal fought back through Thomas Partey and Ben White before academy product Reiss Nelson sent the home crowd into delirium in the seventh minute of added time, sealing a scarcely believable 3-2 win in another true test of the Gunners’ title credentials.
While Premier League glory is by no means a guarantee, it would take a catastrophic collapse for Arsenal to drop out of the top four – making success in the Europa League less of a priority than in previous years – but they have never been knocked out in the last 16 of Europe’s second-tier tournament and are no doubt growing restless for a slice of continental glory.
En route to the final in the 2018-19 season, Arsenal edged past Sporting 1-0 during the group stage thanks to Danny Welbeck’s winner in Portugal, and a subsequent goalless draw at the Emirates made it four games without a win or goal for the Portuguese giants against their London counterparts.
Sporting Lisbon Europa League form:
Sporting Lisbon form (all competitions):
Arsenal Europa League form:
Arsenal form (all competitions):
We say: Sporting Lisbon 1-1 Arsenal
With Sporting being forced to bring in at least one inexperienced midfielder to cover for stalwart Ugarte, Arsenal would no doubt take advantage in normal circumstances, but a wealth of attacking injuries does not bode that well for Arteta’s side.
While the Gunners should not share the same fate as North London rivals Tottenham did on Sporting’s turf, they might have to be content with a draw before the two sides reconvene at the Emirates on March 16.