LEWIS STEELE: Is Arsenal's Europa League loss a blessing in disguise?

LEWIS STEELE: Arsenal’s penalty shoot-out defeat to Sporting in the Europa League knocked the stuffing out of all in attendance, so will Mikel Arteta be able to pick his players up off the canvas?

  • Nobody can say Mikel Arteta’s Arsenal were distracted by the Premier League
  • The Gunners next face a Crystal Palace side without Patrick Vieira at the helm
  • Re-live the action as Arsenal crash out of the Europa League after penalties 

As the clock struck midnight and the euphoric Sporting fans had danced away into the London night, a group of Portuguese media lay on the plush sofas in the bowels of the Emirates Stadium with their cheeks puffed out. It was that sort of evening.

The sort of evening that knocked the stuffing out of all in attendance. The sort of evening that left one wondering how Mikel Arteta can help lift his players off the canvas.

Is Arsenal’s Europa League exit a blessing in disguise? In the long run, of course it is – and we will get to that point. But after a draining night, emotionally and physically, the Spaniard now faces a monumental effort to refocus the minds and bodies of his soldiers.

No one can doubt that the Gunners wanted to progress. No one can look back with anger or regret. No one can say that they let an era-defining Premier League title tilt distract them.

This defeat in isolation will do little to dent Arsenal’s positive mindsets but it was a bruising night, with just one day of light training in the middle of it and Sunday’s clash with Crystal Palace.

Arsenal were beaten on penalties by Sporting after a 3-3 draw across both legs on aggregate

The Portuguese side secured a famous win on a night that knocked the stuffing out of all in attendance

On paper, Arsenal should wipe the floor with Palace, the team that are yet to win in 2023 and are in the worst form of any Premier League side.

But with tired legs from the start, an assignment of Wilfried Zaha, Michael Olise and Ebere Eze running at defenders is a little frightening.

‘We have a final against Crystal Palace and we have to recover our energy, play better than today,’ said Arteta.

Asked if the exit was a blessing, he replied: ‘I don’t see it today that way. We wanted to go through and we put everything into it. Our effort was incredible, we really wanted it.’

Takehiro Tomiyasu left the stadium on crutches, while William Saliba was also substituted due to an injury. They were just the headline knocks of a bruising night that saw tackles flying in. Gabriel Magalhaes was limping and Oleksandr Zinchenko seemed to have a problem, too.

While Arsenal have coped well with injuries this season – Gabriel Jesus missed nearly four months – the Gunners’ defensive unit has rarely changed, especially the central pairing.

Unlike rivals Manchester City who, in the absence of John Stones recently, have been able to call upon the colossal Ruben Dias and ever-improving Nathan Ake, Arsenal’s defensive depth is frail. Sporting caused the Gunners a worrying amount of problems in this match.

‘We have to look at ourselves,’ added Arteta. ‘The things we could do better. We can’t rely on penalty shootouts to win a competition.

Granit Xhaka gave the Gunners the lead on a night that saw Sporting cause several problems

Pedro Goncalves equalised in the second half with a stunning lob from just inside Arsenal’s half

Gabriel Martinelli’s missed penalty proved the difference on the night with the visitors faultless from the spot

‘Now we only have 11 games and one focus. All the clarity and all the energy.’

Clarity. That was a word Arteta used a lot. It feels like we are into the home straight but, with 11 hurdles to clear, anything can happen.

If Palace do get something here on Sunday, it will be easy to point the finger at this bruising defeat as the reason.

Thursday night Europa League games don’t have the same viewership as Champions League matches, of course, but this felt like an audition for Sporting boss Ruben Amorim.

After beating Tottenham earlier in the season, he completed a north London double with a victory that will go down in Sporting folklore.

As he patrolled the touchline in his box-fresh white-and-green Air Force 1 trainers, his energy and passion reminded one of a young Jose Mourinho.

A lazy comparison, perhaps. But it will be a huge shock if Amorim doesn’t end up on these shores in the near future. Maybe even Tottenham if Antonio Conte leaves in the summer.

His Sporting side lacked any household names but they have punched above their weight in Europe after delivering the club its first Portuguese league title in 19 years in 2021.

Sporting boss Ruben Amorim has completed a north London double by beating both Arsenal and Tottenham this season

Amorim has earned comparisons with Jose Mourinho – whose Roma side also won on Thursday

‘There will never be another Mourinho,’ said Amorim on his elder, whose Roma side also won on Thursday night. ‘He is unique. He has already texted me and said the old one and the new one are through to the next round.’

Sporting have lost a number of key players in the last year, such as Pedro Porro, Joao Palhinha and Matheus Nunes but they look a fantastic football team that plays quick, easy-on-the-eye passing moves.

For all their shrewd business, one deal that stands out came early in 2020, when the club paid a £10million sum to Braga to poach manager Amorim.

It’s unusual to see managers move for fees but, if he were to move again, this bright young coach would be worth a lot more now. Watch this space.

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