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.
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’s second-leg thrashing of Midtjylland in the playoff round was not the perfect affair for Amorim, as midfielder Manuel Ugarte picked up his third European booking of the season and will miss Thursday’s game through suspension.
With Daniel Braganca still recovering from a ruptured cruciate ligament, 19-year-old Argentina starlet Mateo Tanlongo should come in for a start alongside Hidemasa Morita, but Amorim has no other injury or suspension concerns to factor in.
Amorim should not shy away from making a few defensive alterations, bringing Matheus Reis and Jeremiah St. Juste back in from the start, but Hector Bellerin will likely start on the bench against his old club.
As for Arsenal, Arteta is at risk of being without his three recognised central attacking options after Leandro Trossard came off with a groin problem in the first half of the win over Bournemouth.
Initial assessments have ruled out a serious injury, but the Belgian is likely to miss out here alongside Gabriel Jesus and Mohamed Elneny, while Eddie Nketiah’s ankle problem is unlikely to heal in time for the first leg either.
Gabriel Martinelli should therefore shoulder the goalscoring burden in the number nine spot, allowing Emile Smith Rowe – who came off the bench against Bournemouth before being taken off for Nelson – to come in for his first start of the season on the left-hand side.
Arteta will be tempted to shuffle the pack some more as Matt Turner and Jorginho push for recalls, but Kieran Tierney is unlikely to be involved due to illness.
Sporting Lisbon possible starting lineup:
Adan; Inacio, Coates, St. Juste; Esgaio, Tanlongo, Morita, Reis; Edwards, Paulinho, Goncalves
Arsenal possible starting lineup:
Turner; White, Saliba, Gabriel, Zinchenko; Xhaka, Jorginho; Saka, Odegaard, Smith Rowe; Martinelli