In the span of less than three months, Arsenal have gone for having near zero expectations under new manager Unai Emery to the new boss pleading to supporters not to get carried away after arguably their most impressive victory of the season that also extended the Gunners’ run to 10 on the trot.
Such is the fickle nature in north London as Arsenal face Portuguese side Sporting CP on Thursday in a top of the table clash in Group E of the Europa League.
POTENTIAL STARTING XIs
Arsenal are fourth in the table on 21 points, bookended by London rivals Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur while lurking two points behind reigning champions Manchester City and Liverpool. The Gunners have scored 22 goals in league play, second only to City (26), and that has carried over to Europa League action, where they have bagged seven more in their two wins to lead Group E on goal difference.
The 10-match winning streak in all competitions is Arsenal’s longest such run since reeling off 11 victories on the bounce from Jan. 10-March 30, 2004, part of the dominant run of the “Invincibles” who were the last team to navigate an entire Premier League season undefeated.
Arsenal’s 3-1 victory over Leicester City on Monday evoked memories of that famous side, with slick passing and a flowing offence that shook off a sluggish first half-hour to put on a master class of football in the final 60 minutes. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang had a brace for the second straight match while Mesut Ozil had a goal and set up Aubameyang’s second goal on 66 minutes.
“I don’t have to tell you he’s a good player, he has shown that for the past years,” defender Shkodran Mustafi told Arsenal’s official website of Ozil, “and when you give him the opportunity to play in his favourite position just behind the striker he is capable of doing anything and I think he showed he can assist, score goals and make us look very dangerous going forward.”
Ozil’s play was what Gunners supporters have been longing for from the former Germany international, whose inconsistencies at times have been maddening to watch and arguably contributed to Arsenal slipping to second-tier status in recent years. But while the wins are piling up, Emery has warned against thinking Arsenal are now title contenders.
“It was very important for us to beat Leicester because they’re not far behind us. Now we’ve created a lot of distance with the teams behind us,” the gaffer said. “Now in front we are looking at teams like Liverpool, like Manchester City, like Chelsea, but it’s not important to think about the end. We need to think about the next match against Crystal Palace on Sunday and I also think the Europa League is very important on Thursday.”
To that end, Emery looks like he will not mess too much with a good thing, most notably leaving the red-hot Aubameyang in his first XI. He has five goals and an assist in his last four matches, and the four goals in the last two contests have come in a span of 89 minutes.
While keeper Petr Cech has been cleared to play, he did not accompany the team on this trip as Bernd Leno will again be between the sticks. That, however, may change for Arsenal’s league match against Palace since Cech had been the No. 1 in Premier League play.
There is also the chance of a Uruguay reunion on the field as Arsenal midfielder Lucas Torreira and Sporting defender Sebastian Coates could meet. Both were instrumental in helping La Celeste reach the quarterfinals in the World Cup this summer in Russia, where they lost to eventual champions France. Torreira’s dogged play in the midfield in front of Uruguay’s back four was a key factor in Arsenal signing the 22-year-old.
Sporting have claimed the maximum six points in their group matches with a 2-0 home victory over Qarabag and a 2-1 triumph at Vorskla in their most recent Europa League encounter earlier this month. The Portuguese side are fifth domestically on 13 points, four back of Benfica and Braga, and are still rebuilding to a degree after supporters attacked players and staff at the end of last season for failing to qualify for the Champions League.
That led many players — most notably goalkeeper and Portugal No. 1 Rui Patricio — to cancel their contracts with the club and seek work elsewhere. While they have yet to face Arsenal in league play, Patricio has caught the attention of the Premier League in helping promoted Wolverhampton reach the top half of the table thus far.
The Verde e Brancos have lost two of their last three league matches and are coming off a 4-2 defeat at Portimonense last Saturday, shipping four goals in a domestic match or the first time since a 4-1 cup defeat to Benfica in 2010. Sporting twice pulled within one goal in the second half, first through Fredy Montero and again through Coates on 88 minutes, but a stoppage-time marker by Portimonense put the contest out of reach.
Sporting have missed Patricio to a degree, recording three clean sheets in their 10 overall matches while conceding 10 goals. Patricio had 20 shutouts in 48 matches across all competitions in 2017-18.
Montero, one-time Manchester United winger Nani and Jovane Cabral share the team lead in scoring with three goals, and Cabral has bagged two of his coming off the bench in just 24 minutes of Europa League action. Bruno Fernandes has yet to show the scintillating form that led to 15 goals and 14 assists in all competitions last season, but he does have two goals and two assists in Sporting’s nine matches.
Per Ladbrokes, Arsenal are clear favourites to return to London with three points and the Group E lead as they have 19/20 odds to post a victory. The odds of the teams remaining level on points through a draw are 5/2, while Sporting have 11/4 odds to pull off a surprise and take the group lead for a fortnight before the return encounter at the Emirates.
The Gunners have 2/1 odds to win this match with more than 2.5 goals and 15/4 odds to be victorious via 0-1 or 0-2 scoreline. That is slightly longer than a low-scoring draw (7/2), and Sporting odds to claim all three points in a match of three goals (5/1) is slightly better than two or fewer (7/1).
There is no lack of options for first goal-scorers among Arsenal players as Welbeck, Lacazette and Aubameyang all share joint honours at 4/1. Gunners teenage striker Eddie Nketiah is just behind his more seasoned teammates at 5/1, and Mkhitaryan rounds out the top five to give the Londoners a 0-1 lead at 11/2. Bas Dost is the top choice for the hosts at 6/1 to open the scoring, while Abdoulaye Diaby and Fredy Montero are right behind him at 13/2.
Lacazette and Aubameyang have some separation from Welbeck for scoring at any point during the 90 minutes, sharing top billing at 7/5 compared to Welbeck’s 6/4 odds. Nketiah lurks slightly further back at 7/4, and Mkhitaryan again completes the top five options with 2/1 odds on an anytime goal. Aaron Ramsey and fellow Arsenal teenager Emile Smith-Rowe offer 21/10 odds on a goal, and Bost again leads the pack of Sporting options at 11/5.
While it’s not the “rainy Tuesday night in Stoke” test, this match does represent a step up in class of competition for Arsenal, who it can be argued were favourites to win all 10 of their matches during this winning streak.
Still, the groundswell of support the Gunners are enjoying during the honeymoon period under Emery is a welcome change to the clashing factions under predecessor Arsene Wenger. With each victory in each passing week, the distance grows between the culture of Arsenal’s past under the Frenchman and the one Emery is creating like a meticulous mason building a foundation.
Ozil’s sprinkle of magic dust, however, is what could lift Arsenal to that next level. It may not be title-contention worthy as there is still a noticeable gulf in class between the Gunners and both Manchester City and Liverpool, and Chelsea to a lesser extent, but a top-four finish is definitely there for the taking.
They were irresistible in that hour against the Foxes, but it was the fact it was only an hour still gives pause to Arsenal being a juggernaut. Leicester took a deserved lead in that first 30 minutes, and arguably could have grabbed a second before Arsenal swung the match.
Sporting have the attacking depth to give Arsenal’s back line a severe test, especially through the middle with Fernandes and Montero, along with Nani on the right. Nani had two goals and an assist in eight career matches versus Arsenal, but more importantly, his teams were 6-1-1 in those contests.
This is a contest where Sporting can begin to re-establish the club’s identity following the disastrous spring occurrences, and a draw between the sides to set up a return engagement in London in a fortnight for the top of the group seems like the most likely outcome.
PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Sporting CP 1, Arsenal 1.