This was not Arsenal’s most exhilarating comeback of the past week, but it may prove significant nonetheless. They are in the box seat for a place in the Europa League quarter-finals, even if their performance hardly screamed of wild enthusiasm for a prolonged run. A competent display in the second leg would surely overcome a bright but limited Sporting.
A strange, patternless and sometimes alarmingly open game produced enough chances to remain engaging but Mikel Arteta’s players may now be thankful, whatever their public pronouncements, for the chance to focus on the challenge Fulham will pose in the latest leg of their Premier League tilt.
If they were neither bad nor especially good, Arsenal could ultimately consider themselves lucky. Paulinho had just spurned a glorious opportunity to put Sporting 3-1 up when the tie was balanced by a bizarre own goal from the midfielder Hidemasa Morita. He had got in the way of Granit Xhaka’s attempt to play Gabriel Martinelli through and, the ball pinging off him at an angle 18 yards out, could only watch in horror as it rolled past his wrong-footed goalkeeper, Adan, and nestled in the bottom corner.
It meant Arteta could acknowledge his side’s resilience in emerging unscathed, but his concern at other elements of the night was clear. At their best Arsenal might have locked the game down after William Saliba put them ahead midway through the first half. Instead they conceded either side of the interval, could have shipped more and showed little sign of overcoming their recent leaky tendencies.
Concessions from set-pieces have been foremost among those and, when the debutant Jakub Kiwior appeared to ill-advisedly leave Marcus Edwards’ inswinging corner to his goalkeeper, Matt Turner, the home defender Gonçalo Inacio was gifted the chance to add another. His flashed header gave Sporting a platform and hammered home the impression that, if the euphoria at their domestic position is to be maintained, Arsenal will surely have to tighten up.
“It’s something we must improve dramatically in the next few games if we want to keep winning,” Arteta said of those aberrations. “We are conceding too many simple goals. We spoke about the importance of the boxes, especially in a competition when you’re in or out. Today we didn’t defend that well enough, and we have to be better at threatening the opponent as well.” There was mitigation for the latter in a rash of attacking absentees, the ill Martin Ødegaard joining Eddie Nketiah, Leandro Trossard and Gabriel Jesus among those unable to feature. Saliba’s opener, glancing Fábio Vieira’s corner across Adan in a sequence that the Sporting equaliser almost exactly replicated, was at least clinical and there were other chances, particularly in the second half. But they lacked control and the result was a frayed, loose affair that was at times hugely entertaining for that.
Martinelli had spurned two decent openings, one of them well snuffed out by Adan, soon after half-time and Arsenal were punished when Turner saved from Pedro Gonçalves and Paulinho converted the loose ball. Gonçalves had missed a good opportunity early on but, now they were ahead, Sporting briefly scented blood.
In a crazy spell after that goal, Martinelli ran virtually the length of the field and rounded Adan but was denied a moment for the ages by Jerry St Juste’s remarkable recovery challenge. Then Paulinho, sent one on one with Turner, should have put the night’s outcome virtually beyond doubt but missed the target and, almost immediately, Arsenal were given their stroke of fortune.
“We are alive and everything is still to play for at the Emirates,” Arteta said. He had fielded six of his regular top-flight starters and gave Bukayo Saka, uncharacteristically quiet for the most part, a full shift once again. Fortunately for those of a nervous disposition it was not outwardly the most physically bruising of games, although a contretemps between Oleksandr Zinchenko and Sebastian Coates in the seconds after Saliba scored gave the affair some bite. Both were booked and the Sporting captain Coates will now miss the rematch, a fate that also awaits the hapless Morita.
Their absences will be handy for Arsenal but the are graver priorities first. “We need to defend our box much better and be better on Sunday,” Arteta said. Fortune may not be as kind at Craven Cottage.