Arsenal 1 Sporting Lisbon 1 (3-3 on aggregate, Sporting win 5-3 on penalties)
This time the late drama did not go Arsenal’s way. They were below par for much of this match and were ultimately knocked out of the Europa League on penalties, Nuno Santos ramming in Sporting’s winner to prompt ecstatic celebrations after Gabriel Martinelli had seen the previous spot kick saved.
Pedro Gonçalves had earlier equalised Granit Xhaka’s opener with a remarkable 50-yard strike; the Portuguese side earned their route to the last eight and Mikel Arteta’s players will, by way of consolation, feel free to focus on their title push.
Much of the talk in advance had been of Arteta’s rebranding of substitutes as “impacters”. There was certainly plenty in reserve here if he wished to use it but the starting line-up was, as ever, not too far off full fat. Even if Bukayo Saka was given a rare rest there was the sight of Gabriel Jesus, eased back in at Fulham on Sunday, being returned to the XI; Martinelli, Xhaka and four of the preferred back five were also deployed, Ben White the only regular defender stood down.
White was called upon to make an impact sooner than he would have expected. His deputy, the luckless Takehiro Tomiyasu, was outdone by a sumptuous turn from Francisco Trincão in the sixth minute and went down shortly afterwards. The cause was injury rather than shame: the right-back appeared to have overstretched in the process of being outwitted and his night was over as soon as it had begun.
Arteta had wanted a tighter, more cohesive performance than the loose showing that deserved no more than the 2-2 draw garnered in Lisbon. It did not materialise straight away and Sporting were the brighter, more threatening side early on. Trincão, having switched across from the left flank, cut inside and bent a shot narrowly wide of Aaron Ramsdale’s right post; Marcus Edwards, a scorer here for Vitória Guimarães in 2019, flitted into threatening pockets.
But Arsenal knew from the first leg that Sporting, whose defence missed the suspended captain Sebastián Coates, were porous. When they finally strung a move together, Jesus got enough on Reiss Nelson’s cross to force a messy intervention from the keeper Antonio Adán. It offered clear encouragement and the breakthrough followed swiftly.
The chance arose when Jorginho, from deep, wafted a perfectly weighted through ball along the inside-left channel to Martinelli. Adán was able to block the Brazilian’s low effort with a foot but Xhaka, following up, made light of the miss with a finish of power and control. It was Xhaka’s first goal since October.
Another defensive injury, this time to William Saliba, immediately removed some of the gloss although he did not look overly dismayed upon leaving the pitch in what appeared a precaution. Rob Holding, his replacement, soon made a timely block from Edwards but Arsenal were now in control. A second goal would probably kill the tie and Jesus almost provided it, twisting into space and forcing a sharp save from Adán.
Sporting had all but evaporated as an attacking force but their right-sided centre back, Jeremiah St Juste, offered a warning shot four minutes before half-time with a 50-yard burst into space that was let down by a wild finish. Manuel Ugarte was then inches wide on the whistle and Arteta will have hoped for a shift in gear at the interval.
Leandro Trossard took the place of Jesus, who had looked sharp enough, for the second half in what appeared a pre-planned switch. Almost immediately there was concern on Arsenal faces when Gabriel Magalhães stayed down after challenging Paulinho, followed by relief that he did not go the same way as Saliba.
Sporting had again begun sharply, Ricardo Esgaio’s cross demanding a brave intervention from Ramsdale. Then Holding was again alert to deny Paulinho; all too often, the visitors were finding spaces behind Arsenal’s midfield. By the hour Arsenal had offered nothing new and it felt they had slept on a chance to make the latter stages easier for themselves.
They were given the most extraordinary wake-up call. Jorginho and Xhaka overplayed in midfield but there was still no reason to believe Gonçalves, taking the ball six yards inside Arsenal’s half, could pose significant danger. What followed was a strike of remarkable vision that caught Ramsdale too far off his line and sailed into the goal, sending the away contingent into raptures.
Paulinho then headed a corner just over; Arteta, duly stung, called Saka and Thomas Partey from his bench. Edwards, denied by Ramsdale’s face, missed a glorious chance to win it and Arsenal had to handle an unwelcome extended shift.
They spurned a gift from Dário Essugo, whose back-pass sent Trossard through only for Adán to divert on to a post. In a hectic finale Adán saved stunningly from Gabriel before the same player had a header cleared. Then Ugarte received his second booking for a foul on Saka, but Sporting made it through to penalties. – Guardian