Given that the away goals rule no longer counts for anything, a scoring draw away from home doesn’t really mean as much as it used to, which is only annoying when your team has indeed bagged a score draw in the away leg. Of course with us not in the competition last year I didn’t pay attention to the ruling which came in during the summer of 2021, only really paying attention to it now we are in the knockout stages of the Europa. But it is there, it is something that we just accept, but what it also ensures is that we don’t get knocked out of a competition from a scabby last minute equaliser in a game. So broadly speaking, I think I’m ok with it, to be honest with you.
This is all – of course – because last night we picked up a 2-2 draw with Sporting Lisbon in the Portuguese capital and, all in all, that isn’t the worst result in the world. Sure, you’d like to get a win that enables you to take something back home, but what we’ve done by not losing and picking up a draw away from home is effectively turn the return leg into a one game knockout on our own turf. It means Sporting Lisbon can’t just sit back and hold on, they have to beat us at the Emirates – one way or another – to go through.
In terms of the game itself, I think Mikel will be broadly pleased we can take this and move on, because he rested a few players and as a result we will have fresher legs come Sunday’s tough away trip to Fulham. Gabriel came out, Partey came out, Odegaard came out and Smith Rowe had to contend with a place on the bench, coming on for Reiss Nelson on 70 minutes. Partey too got a 20 minute run out, as did big Gabby and Tomiyasu came in at left back for just over 20 minutes as well, meaning some of those players who will play for Sunday didn’t have to get the full 90. I must admit that I’d have liked to see Saka given some rest and in an ideal world you would have given Martinelli a bit of time off at the end. But given the problems we have up top with injuries – Gabriel Jesus still not fit enough for the match day squad and both Eddie Nketiah and Trossard are injured – I suppose Arteta took a calculated risk that the two 21-year-olds can handle it. Saka looked to be limping at one stage, but he seemed to shake it off so hopefully he’s fine.
And we seemed to be fine for the first half an hour. Sporting looked lively in the opening salvo’s, but we quickly regained the ball and territory and when Saliba nodded in on 22 minutes, it felt like this was going to be the start of a comfortable night. I thought we were a little fortunate for it not to be chalked off for VAR, given that Zinchenko was clearly pulling down the guy behind him. But did it have an impact on the goal situation? Probably not. So we were ahead and looking good, retaining the ball and looking comfortable. I thought it might turn in to a little bit of a walkover; well, I hoped it would. But Sporting Lisbon are no mugs. They beat the Scum on this ground and got themselves a draw away from home in the Toilet Bowl and last night showed that, on the counter, they can cause us problems. They had a few really good chances that better finishing might have punished us on and I thought we looked surprisingly open at the back. Perhaps that’s because of the rotation in changes and whilst Kiwior did ok in patches, in the big moments I thought he was left wanting. Sporting’s equaliser was not a good look on either the Pole or Matt Turner, who looked like he was coming for the ball and then seemed to chicken out towards the end. That gave the Sporting play Inacio the chance to jump relatively unimpeded to head them level and for about five minutes after that we looked a little rocky. It would be quite easy to chastise the players who came in last night, but we need to remember that they have not been playing together all season and so those famous Big Per Mertesacker ‘automatisms’ just aren’t there between some of these players rotated in. So I’m not going to go to town on those players this morning.
I did think Fabio Vieira did alright in place of Odegaard though. He moved the ball well, he looked more confident and given that he’s been getting more game time of late you can see that Arteta likes him. He was linking well with Saka, finding pockets of space to recycle possession with Xhaka, plus he seemed to interact with Jorginho well enough, with the Italian standing in and doing exactly what we all said we needed; a Thomas Partey stand in so we aren’t reliant on him in all of these games. Partey can now come in for Fulham and he’ll have had some minutes, been eased in, can slot in to our midfield in a game that I think is going to be super difficult for us at Craven Cottage.
In terms of the second half, to me it felt very much more of the same, because we dominated the ball (68% possession to their 38%), most of the chances (14 to their 10), forcing their very annoying ‘keeper into a few saves (did you see him feigning injury for the Nelson chance? Or when he was waving the imaginary card after he was stopped from kicking the ball up field? knob), so all in all we were the better side. But the way we went behind defensively was another worry and we’re starting to concede some really sloppy goals that just simply weren’t there at the beginning of the season. The set piece they scored for the first was poor defensive communication and Paulinho’s goal may have had a touch of fortune that it fell to him instead of a number of those Arsenal players after Turner’s save, but we should have dealt with it better in the build up. Sporting Lisbon’s plan was clearly to hit us in transition when we made a mistake and the whole move started with one of our midfielders – I can’t remember which – gave the ball away on the far right hand side in the middle of the pitch. They profited from our mistakes and that is something Arteta won’t be happy about. But the response he will be, because we were only behind for seven minutes and the massive deflection off Morita was the kind of ‘don’t win the lotto if you don’t buy a ticket’ goal that you get every once in a while. It was no more than we deserved, because we were better and were in more control than them, but they still caused us damage.
The up side for us for the Emirates is that their captain Coates will now be missing through suspension, as will Morita, after picking up a booking too. Those are two of their big players out and with us having home advantage, you’d hope we have enough to get through to the next round.
Still a lot to play for though. But on to Sunday and time for the focus to shift back to the Premier League.
Catch you all tomorrow.
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