Sporting Lisbon 0 Arsenal 1
Momentum is a curious thing. It takes a while to warm up and can go cold suddenly, but right now it is fuelling Arsenal. This was not their most inspiring performance of recent weeks but they possessed enough quality to extend their winning sequence in all competitions to 11 and stamp control on Group E in the Europa League.
Danny Welbeck was the matchwinner who inflicted a rare home defeat for Sporting, who have not lost a game at the Estádio José Alvalade since Barcelona swung into town just over a year ago. Coming into the game Unai Emery had talked about his liking for the spectacle, for the panache of the goals that had flavoured recent victories. This match was more about sticking at it when their game lacked some slickness.
A year ago, three games into the Europa League group stage, Arsène Wenger took a hotchpotch group to Red Star Belgrade drawn from the established players who were not getting any Premier League minutes mixed in with ten Academy boys making up the matchday squad. While Wenger utilised two completely different teams in league and cup competitions, Emery's way is to promote the feeling of one squad, regardless of the opponent or prize. There were only two players from the 18 selected in Belgrade who played a part in Lisbon, Rob Holding and Mohamed Elneny, which underlines the scale of change in approach.
Arsenal nonetheless transposed their habit for strangely sluggish first halves into the Europa League. An underwhelming start offered Sporting plenty of encouragement to try to take the initiative. The Portuguese team strained for that touch of precision or finesse to cause major problems, but it was obvious they wanted to get the ball forward directly as often as they could.
Just after the half-hour mark Nani energised the crowd with a sudden change of pace and direction to give himself a shooting chance. His strike fizzed just over the bar. If that lifted the crowd, the mood sharpened moments later when Sokratis grabbed a chunk of Fredy Montero’s shirt as the Colombian stretched his legs. Down he went, and the screeching whistles cascaded down from the stands as the referee waved play on.
All Arsenal had to show offensively from a tepid opening 45 minutes was a free kick from Henrikh Mkhitaryan which Renan Ribeiro beat away. Emery, in his dugout, looked pensive. The fluency and urgency was lacking, and the half-time whistle begged the question as to why Arsenal only find their gears in the second half – and indeed if they might find themselves with too much ground to make up one of these days.
There was an upturn just after the restart as Pierre Emerick Aubameyang was sent scurrying towards goal twice in quick succession. On both occasions the quality of the pass was incisive, although he had to shoot from sharp angles. Both times Ribeiro was equal to it to keep the game scoreless.
The moment to be ruthless then evaded Welbeck, who was gifted a chance by Matteo Guendouzi's cutback. The ball spun off target. Midway through the second half the England forward did find the net with a powerful header, only for the referee Damir Skomina to disallow the goal for a perceived foul. The decision looked debatable.
Arsenal were beginning to pass the ball more smoothly, find some rhythm, but Emery wanted more so he sent on the increasingly influential Lucas Torreira. The Uruguayan tested Ribeiro with a free kick as the pressure began to crank up in search of a winner.
Their goal came fortuitously, as Sporting were finally punished when ruthlessness followed a slip by Sebastian Coates. The defender tried in vain to deal with a backheel from Aubameyang and only diverted the ball for Welbeck to power forward and steer past Ribeiro.
Eleven wins and counting, Arsenal’s next hurdle is Selhurst Park on Sunday. - Guardian