ARSENAL might not need to win the Europa League to guarantee them Champions League qualification any more.
But Mikel Arteta’s relentless young Gunners are still refusing to sack off their Thursday nights in Uefa’s consolation prize of a competition.
ReutersArsenal got a 2-2 draw away at Sporting in the Europa League[/caption]
William Saliba headed in the opening goalRexGettySaliba celebrates his third goal of the season[/caption]
With a 21-point lead over fifth-placed Liverpool in the Premier League, their return to Europe’s premier club competition after a six-year absence is all but guaranteed next season.
Yet even though it is now 13 years since Porto became the one and only Europa League winners to go on and win their domestic title, Arsenal are still not ready to abandon their double dreams just yet.
Goals from William Saliba and Granit Xhaka mean they head back to London perfectly placed to secure their quarter-final place in next week’s return leg.
And they did it despite having to cope with a striking dilemma which is already causing Arteta headaches ahead of Sunday’s return to Premier League action at Fulham.
Even if he had wanted to rest some of his key players in Lisbon last night, he was denied that luxury by simultaneous injuries to Gabriel Jesus, Eddie Nketiah and Leandro Trossard.
To make matters worse, captain Martin Odegaard and Keiran Tierney were both laid low by illness which left Arteta relying on a bunch of kids just to fill out the bench.
That meant an Arsenal debut for Jakub Kiwior, the Polish defender signed in a £20million January deal from Spezia, as well as a first start in three months for Reiss Nelson.
A return to the team was the very least Nelson deserved for his stunning weekend winner against Bournemouth.
And he was quickly back into the action with an attempted shot which required an important early block by Hidemasa Morita.
But with so many changes to the team, it was hardly surprising that Arsenal looked disjointed and they were fortunate to escape when Pedro Goncalves was allowed to get in behind Jorginho but struck his shot wide of the far post.
Yet the Sporting fans did not have too many expectations of the 19-time Portuguese champions who are currently a distant fourth in their domestic league and were knocked out in the Champions League group stages despite taking four points off Spurs.
Having been forced to sell Joao Palhinha to Fulham, Matheus Nunes to Wolves and Pedro Porro to Spurs this season, they suffered another setback when former Arsenal favourite Hector Bellerin injured a knee on the eve of this match.
Oleksandr Zinchenko celebrated the goal by laughing in the face of Matheus Reis, sparking a major scuffle which ended with the Arsenal defender and Sporting giant Sebastian Coates both seeing yellow.
It means former Liverpool centre-half Coates will now be suspended for next Thursday’s Emirates return leg.
But Arsenal weren’t chuckling for long before Sporting were back on level terms with a 35th-minute equaliser scored in almost identical fashion to their opponents’ goal.
This time it was former Spurs winger Marcus Edwards who delivered the inswinging corner for Goncalo Inacio to outjump Kiwior and nod in from close range.
And Edwards very nearly doubled his team’s tally with a snap-shot from distance which had Gunners keeper Matt Turner scrambling to push behind for a corner.
London-born Edwards was causing Arsenal no end of trouble with his pace and trickery and it was no surprise that he was heavily involved again when Sporting took the lead ten minutes after the break.
This time his clever pass played Goncalves in on goal and though Turner was able to get a hand to his low shot he was powerless to prevent Paulinho turning in the loose ball from close range.
Paulinho should have put the tie beyond doubt when he was played in again by Goncalves but failed to hit the target with only Turner to beat.
Martinelli was then denied the goal of the season when he ran through four tackles from his own half, rounded keeper Antonio Adan but had his shot cleared off the line by Jeremiah St. Juste.
But this Arsenal team simply do not know when they are beaten and they completed another impressive comeback when Xhaka’s 63rd-minute pot-shot completely wrong-footed Adan courtesy of a massive deflection off the unfortunate Morita.
ReutersGoncalo Inacio levelled in virtually identical fashion[/caption]
GettyGranit Xhaka’s hopeful effort took a wicked deflection into the net[/caption]
APPaulinho turned in to give the hosts the lead[/caption]
ReutersInacio leaps for joy after heading in[/caption]
GettyTensions were running high during the first half in Portugal[/caption]
GettyJeremiah St Juste showed his rapid pace to get back and deny Gabriel Martinelli[/caption]