This was another step forward for Unai Emery’s Arsenal, but it certainly did not feel like that. On a night when they completed their primary target of qualifying for the Europa League knockout stages, any feeling of triumph was nullified by a traumatic and severe injury to Danny Welbeck.
Arsenal had believed a win would be needed to guarantee their qualification from the group stage, but the defeat of Ukrainian side Vorskla Poltava by Qarabag meant that this solitary point, against a fiery Sporting CP, was enough to see them through. It is a combination of results that should have relieved the tension when it comes to European football for the rest of the year, but instead the loss of Welbeck – and a later injury to full-back Stephan Lichtsteiner – will leave Emery’s squad feeling the strain.
The injury to Welbeck, which left several Arsenal players visibly upset, changed the mood at the Emirates and the tone of the performance. It was only at the end, when Sporting were reduced to 10 men, that Arsenal really looked close to sealing a victory. Even then, they could produce nothing that took the mind away from Welbeck and his agony.
Welbeck’s injury was the defining moment of a first half which Arsenal dominated despite the best efforts of the Sporting fans, who were doing their best to make this feel like an away game for Emery’s side. The sheer demand for tickets in Lisbon had resulted in Arsenal allocating the away fans with a larger-than-usual number of seats here, and the atmosphere was far more boisterous than Arsenal have come to expect in their Europa League fixtures.
Welbeck had looked lively in the opening stages, when he and Henrikh Mkhitaryan had combined well with 18-year-old Emile Smith Rowe in attack. Mkhitaryan almost picked out Welbeck with a low cross, before Smith Rowe curled over after a weaving run through midfield.
Alex Iwobi also looked bright going forward, while central midfielder Matteo Guendouzi nearly forced an own goal out of Sporting defender Jeremy Mathieu. Only a goal-line clearance from Sebastian Coates saved Mathieu’s blushes, and it was so close to trickling into the net that Emery had already begun to celebrate on the touchline.
With Sporting only offering the most minimal threat on the counter, Welbeck looked the game’s most dangerous player. First he headed wide from a corner, and then another header was saved by Sporting goalkeeper Renan Ribeiro. It was in his efforts to score this second attempt that Welbeck landed horribly on his right ankle. His treatment on the pitch, which included an oxygen mask, was worryingly lengthy and clearly disturbing for his team-mates. The 19-year-old Guendouzi, in particular, was transfixed by the sight of Welbeck lying prone on the floor.
While the severity of these injuries is rarely made clear until the following day, at the earliest, there can be no doubt that this was a major problem for Welbeck, who was earlier named in Gareth Southgate’s England squad for the upcoming matches against the United States and Croatia.
With Welbeck’s contract due to expire at the end of the season, any long-term injury will also cast doubt over the 27-year-old’s future as an Arsenal player.
Emery would have been thankful that he had named Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang on the bench as a direct and high-class replacement for Welbeck. It was Aubameyang who went closest to opening the scoring in the first few minutes of the second half, when his near-post strike grazed the top of Ribeiro’s bar after another whipped Mkhitaryan cross.
Smith Rowe continued to cause problems with his direct running, but the nature of Welbeck’s departure appeared to have sapped some of the home side’s vigour. That said, they remained a class above Sporting, who had sacked manager Jose Peseiro in between this fixture and their meeting with Arsenal in Lisbon last month.
The pressure was relentless, and it was only the injury to Lichtsteiner, who pulled up when chasing a through ball down the right wing, that threatened to disrupt the home side’s rhythm. Arsenal continued to push, but they consistently fell short with either the final pass or the crucial shot on goal. Iwobi blasted a cross behind the goal, while Aubameyang’s close range effort was well blocked.
Their hopes were boosted when Mathieu hacked the sprinting Aubameyang to the ground in the final moments, an offence for which he saw a straight red card. But Aubameyang sent the resulting free kick high into the stands, and that was to be that on a difficult night.
Some Arsenal Opta facts for you
- Arsenal failed to score for just the second time under manager Unai Emery, also drawing a blank against Man City in the Spaniards first game in charge (0-2).
- Sporting CP failed to have a single shot on target in either of their meetings with Arsenal this season.
- Excluding qualifiers, Arsenal have kept three consecutive clean sheets in European competition for the first time since the 2007-08 Champions League group stages.
- Sporting kept their first away clean sheet in the Europa League since September 2011 (2-0 vs FC Zurich), ending a run of 18 games in which they’d conceded.
- Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang had twice as many shots as any other Arsenal player (4), but not a single one of these was on target.
Petr Cech’s thoughts
It took us a while to open them up, this is the kind of game you need to score and we didn’t do so. We wanted to win.
It looks like a serious injury and then Stephan after. We knew at half time we are doing good things, need to keep up the intensity. We take the draw and move on.
63 mins – Arsenal 0 Sporting 0
Carl Jenkinson goes back into a box under the stairs until next November as Sead Kolasinac comes on to replace him.
Acuna whips in a ball from wide left but it’s cleared by Holding, who is having another great game. Guendouzi is on the right wing now trying to cross in, the goalie punches away.
This match feels like a pre-season friendly. Nobody on the pitch really seems to care that much.
60 mins – Arsenal 0 Sporting 0
AUBAMEYAAAAAANG hits the side-netting. I might do the rest of this in the voice of the ISS64 commentator. He’s taken it with his… RIGHT FOOT!
In all seriousness, Aubameyang has found a chance to shoot on the angle inside the box and launched a thunderbolt that smashed the side-netting, prompting many in the ground to think it was a goal. It was not a goal. There are no goals.
54 mins – Arsenal 0 Sporting 0
Ramsey’s playing a very disciplined holding midfield role today. It must be killing him inside that he’s not allowed to run up the pitch whenever he wants (all the time).
Holding does really well to read a through-ball, moves towards it, drops back, then knicks the ball away.
Smith-Rowe is on the ball on the left now after a lovely bit of play and beautiful sliced pass from Ramsey to stretch the pitch. Smith-Rowe loses his balance while shooting.
48 mins – Arsenal 0 Sporting 0
Mkhitaryan attacks the space as Lichsteiner heads the ball on and Aubameyang meets the cross! He’s hit the side netting! So close at the start of the second half. The tempo’s gone up here, which is a good thing.
The ball drops from the sky and sits up perfectly for Jenkinson to hit a power volley rocket shot! He lines it up… this could be a worldy! Jenkinson completely misses the ball.
More on Welbeck
There are some really not nice images of Welbeck for this. He jumps for the header, lands and as he falls the studs on the very front of his boot get caught in the turf and his leg naturally twists. He falls down with the weight of Gaspar on top of him and… well you can probably imagine what happens next. It was clear immediately he was in trouble.
33 mins – Arsenal 0 Sporting 0
Danny Welbeck down and clearly in a lot of pain. He’s receiving oxygen. Hard to tell what happened – looked at first like a head injury – but seems to be a problem with his leg (knee?). Guendouzi looking really, really troubled. Can’t take his eyes off it…
— Sam Dean (@SamJDean) November 8, 2018
28 mins – Arsenal 0 Sporting 0
This sucks. Welbeck’s being given oxygen now as well, it’s clearly a bad injury. Arsenal players look distraught. Guendouzi is particularly concerned.
The poor boy. I think he might have come down on his ankle but with all his weight on it. Like when you roll your ankle x 8million. It’s such a shame, he was starting to find form and playing really well.
26 mins – Arsenal 0 Sporting 0
Welbeck arrives at the back post to connect with a decent cross from Lichsteiner but he’s landed awkwardly and is in a bit of pain.
Hmm he’s really not happy actually, the physio’s put him on his side and he’s rolling around. And they want a stretcher. He might have goosed his ankle here.
19 mins – Arsenal 0 Sporting 0
Great turn from Smith-Rowe! He does a little Cruyff turn on the move to get behind the defence on the right but Sporting recover. Mkhitaryan and Guendouzi link on the right, the ball is crosses in and WELBECK IS THERE! The goalkeeper blocks! I’m not sure Welbeck even connects with the cross there.
Sporting enjoy possession for a bit but then Gudejl punts a shot over into the North Bank.
15 in a row?
A look at Arsenal’s recent form might have you think things aren’t going so well – two draws and a narrow win over Blackpool in their last three games is pretty dour stuff after an 11-match winning run.
But the bigger picture explains they are now 14 games unbeaten, and did really well to avoid defeat against Liverpool last week.
Will they make it 15 tonight? They certainly should do.
A Sporting chance
While the likes of Vorskla Poltava and Qarabag may not be the usual types Arsenal mix with on the European stage, they have at least ensured a safe passage towards the knockout stages of the Europa League. Arsenal’s win in Lisbon a fortnight ago, against their only credible Group E challengers, means that a similar result in the return fixture tonight will confirm qualification.
Unai Emery’s second-tier European pedigree is such that Arsenal ought to be taking the latter stages seriously, especially given the prize on offer at the end of it these days.
Emery negotiated Sevilla’s way through the relative backwaters of Continental football to lifting the trophy three times in as many seasons between 2014 and 2016 – to add a fourth to his CV this season would be warmly welcomed by an Arsenal fanbase who have grown weary of glancing enviously at the trophy cabinets of Manchester City and Chelsea.
It might well be a night for back-up players – Alex Iwobi, Aaron Ramsey and Danny Welbeck are all expected to start at the Emirates – but Sporting are, in name at least, illustrious visitors.
Team news on the way soon, and JJ Bull will be here shortly before kick-off to guide you through it…