Arsenal struggle without their spine but salvage draw against Sporting CP

Sporting CP vs Arsenal, live: score and latest updates from Europa League last-16 - Reuters/Pedro Nunes
Sporting CP vs Arsenal, live: score and latest updates from Europa League last-16 - Reuters/Pedro Nunes

By Sam Dean at Estadio Jose Alvalade

A time may come when Mikel Arteta is able to rotate half of his team, introducing a different spine for different matches, without hurting the quality of Arsenal’s performances. That time has not yet arrived, though, and this trip to Lisbon was another reminder that Arsenal’s hopes this season are probably dependent on the fitness and form of a few key players.

Aaron Ramsdale, Gabriel Magalhaes, Thomas Partey, Martin Odegaard, Gabriel Jesus. Arsenal have proven that they can handle the absence of one or two of those star performers this season, but doing so without all of them at once is another matter entirely.

Injury, illness and the need for rotation prompted Arteta to make six changes to his side for this Europa League round of 16 first leg against Sporting CP. What followed was a watchable yet chaotic 70 minutes of football, in which Arsenal looked slick at one moment and then dangerously disordered the next.

Only when two of the big boys — Partey and Gabriel — entered the fray in the final 20 minutes did Arsenal show more control. By then the score was 2-2, and it stayed that way against Portugal’s fourth-best team, who will feel that they should have scored at least once more in front of their own fans.

A passable result for Arsenal, then, after a patchy performance, and Arteta’s side should have more than enough to win this tie in the second leg. But it was hard to shake the feeling that there are bigger fish to fry for this team, the Premier League leaders, and one can certainly expect their side to look a little different at Fulham on Sunday.

Mikel Arteta on the touchline against Sporting CP - Arsenal struggle without their spine but salvage draw against Sporting CP - AP/Armando Franca
Mikel Arteta on the touchline against Sporting CP - Arsenal struggle without their spine but salvage draw against Sporting CP - AP/Armando Franca

For much of the last decade, the Europa League has represented an important opportunity for Arsenal, as winning it provides an alternative route into the Champions League. It is a measure of their season so far that it no longer feels so significant — the Champions League will, surely, be secured through good old-fashioned league position.

Europe is important, of course, because all trophies are important, but the priorities for this club have shifted in recent months. Hence the inclusion here of backup goalkeeper Matt Turner and new centre-back Jakub Kiwior, making his long-awaited debut following his arrival in the January transfer window.

Sporting CP's Goncalo Inacio scores their first goal - Arsenal struggle without their spine but salvage draw against Sporting CP - Reuters/Pedro Nunes
Sporting CP's Goncalo Inacio scores their first goal - Arsenal struggle without their spine but salvage draw against Sporting CP - Reuters/Pedro Nunes

In truth, neither player inspired huge confidence. Indeed, both appeared to be at fault for Sporting's opening goal, which came after William Saliba had given Arsenal the lead from Fabio Vieira’s set piece. From a right-wing corner, Goncalo Inacio was able to simply divert the ball into the net as Kiwior decided against challenging him in the air.

Arsenal have now conceded five goals from set pieces in their last 10 matches, and twice as many goals from corners since the World Cup as they shipped before the break in the campaign. A worrying trend. “It is something we must improve dramatically in the next few days,” said Arteta.

Similarly concerning was the way in which Sporting were able to take the lead, with striker Paulinho converting after Turner had saved a low shot in the second half. Arteta said his team are “conceding too many simple goals”.

Paulinho scores Sporting CP's second - Arsenal struggle without their spine but salvage draw against Sporting CP - AP/Armando Franca
Paulinho scores Sporting CP's second - Arsenal struggle without their spine but salvage draw against Sporting CP - AP/Armando Franca

For a brief moment, it seemed as if the night would be remembered for producing one of the best goals of the season. Gabriel Martinelli embarked on an extraordinary run from his own half, barrelling through challenges like a rugby forward, before he was finally denied at the last second.

Arteta must have felt his luck was out, until Granit Xhaka’s attempted cross bounced off Sporting defender Hidemasa Morita and trickled slowly into the net. A fortuitous equaliser, and not necessarily one that Arsenal deserved. The tie remains in their control, though, and they will no doubt look much stronger this weekend, when they look to continue their title charge. “We are alive and everything is still to play for at the Emirates,” said Arteta.

08:15 PM

Arteta's assessment

Considering you concede two goals away from home and still escape with a draw you have to take some positives.

But we gave them too much hope by giving the ball away in our own half too many times.

We had control for long periods but we lacked a bit of that final touch and capacity to punish them but we are missing four key attackers so we will take the draw.

08:14 PM

Xhaka on Arsenal's night

We knew before the game it is tough to play here. It is always tough to play against a Portuguese team they are, well disciplined, tough and have good players technically but we have to take the 2-2 and finish the game in London.

08:01 PM

More from Saliba

We know they can score but we know we can always come back and never give up. It is a good mentality from the team. It is always better to lead but when we don't we have to come back.

07:49 PM

Saliba speaking after the game

We are lucky we have a second game at home and will give everything to win next week. It's always bad to concede two goals.

07:42 PM

FT: Sporting 2 Arsenal 2

A very entertaining game that swung this way and that.

It started with Arsenal in full control after 30 minutes or so, then a mad period in the middle chink of the game when Sporting created several chances and Martinelli went close to a worldie.

Arsenal levelled with a fortunate own goal, before the introductions of Partey and Gabriel settled the game down. Arsenal didn't quite have the firepower on the bench to turn the screw.

An acceptable night for Arsenal, now they need to rest up before Fulham.

07:41 PM

90+4 minutes: Sporting 2 Arsenal 2

Saka forced a corner in the dying seconds, but Vieira's corner was headed away by a green Sporting shirt.

07:39 PM

90+3 minutes: Sporting 2 Arsenal 2

Saka almost has the final say: skipped inside a couple of challenges from the right and took the shot on from the edge of the D, but it was straight down Adan's throat.

07:37 PM

There will be FOUR minutes of added time

Are Arsenal and Sporting content with their night or is there another twist?

07:35 PM

90 minutes: Sporting 2 Arsenal 2

Ben White gets himself forward on the overlap, but his cross is skewed behind for a goal kick.

Marcus Edwards departs to a good ovation from the home fans, he has flashed his quality once again on the European stage.

07:33 PM

88 minutes: Sporting 2 Arsenal 2

Arsenal putting a lid on the game with a controlled spell of possession, not really pushing players forward in numbers. Vieira had a half-hearted penalty appeal turned down, before a deflected Saka shot was saved easily.

07:32 PM

86 minutes: Sporting 2 Arsenal 2

St Juste looked to steam into Tomiyasu after the ball was played but the referee missed it. Can either side fashion one big chance? It does not feel as if a goal is coming. Arsenal on the ball, and coming forward now.

07:29 PM

84 minutes: Sporting 2 Arsenal 2

Arsenal's forward threat has now dissipated, really missing the options that Nketiah, Trossard or of course Jesus could offer them. Arsenal defending in a shape now, and Sporting seeing more of the ball.

07:27 PM

82 minutes: Sporting 2 Arsenal 2

The introduction of the two young forwards has helped Sporting gain a foothold again. Neither side will be dismayed with this result, but Arsenal have played Martinelli and Saka for 90 minutes. Both will need to go again at Fulham.

07:25 PM

80 minutes: Sporting 2 Arsenal 2

Sporting have not sustained attacks for 15 minutes or so, but when they do come forward there is still a threat. Diomande with a low shot from just outside that box that fizzed wide of the post.

07:24 PM

78 minutes: Sporting 2 Arsenal 2

Ben White was caught, lightly but late, by Goncalves and the referee took and age to award the free-kick. Smith Rowe floats it in, but a foul is given to Sporting against Tomiyasu.

07:22 PM

76 minutes: Sporting 2 Arsenal 2

Nice idea from Arsenal with Xhaka overlapping and trying to cut the ball back for Saka, but the midfielder was offside. Diomande and Ramalho Chermiti are on in Sporting's latest raft of changes.

07:19 PM

73 minutes: Sporting 2 Arsenal 2

Those changes should make Arsenal more secure at the back, they have struggled to deal with counter-attacks tonight.

Gabriel defends well but play is stopped because St Juste is down injured. The game has entered a lull after that frantic 10 or 15 minutes.

07:17 PM

70 minutes: Sporting 2 Arsenal 2

Sporting starting to look leggy. Arsenal work the ball to Nelson at the edge of the box but his right foot shot was always rising.

Another double sub from Arsenal. Correction, a triple sub: Partey, Gabriel and Smith Rowe coming on from Kiwior, Jorginho and Nelson.

07:15 PM

68 minutes: Sporting 2 Arsenal 2

Arteta has made a change: Tomiyasu on for Zinchenko, who summed up Arsenal's performance - some real frissons of class but some daft stuff as well.

Arsenal are keeping the in the Sporting half now.

07:12 PM

66 minutes: Sporting 2 Arsenal 2

Sometimes these Europa League games can be sleepy affairs, but this game has gone haywire. Martinelli almost scored a third for Arsenal, but his header was tipped over the bar. Both teams could have scored more.

07:09 PM

GOOOOAALL! Arsenal level with one of the luckiest goals you will see

Xhaka was looking for Martinelli, but his cross into the box was deflected into the net by Morita. The goal was checked by Var for a foul by Saka in the build up, but the referee points to the centre spot.

07:08 PM

62 minutes: Sporting 2 Arsenal 1

Chances coming at both ends. Sporting cut Arsenal apart and Paulinho had some much time and space with only Turner to beat but shot high and wide.

07:05 PM

60 minutes: Sporting 2 Arsenal 1

Martinelli almost scored the goal of the season! Went past about four Sporting players with a mazy from his own half, but he tried to go around the goalkeeper which narrowed the angle. St Juste did really well to get back and block the shot.

Adan takes the corner at the second attempt.

07:04 PM

58 minutes: Sporting 2 Arsenal 1

It is all happening here now, Morita is booked for a challenge on Vieira and he will miss the second leg through suspension.

07:02 PM

GOOOOAAALL! Sporting lead through Paulinho

Arsenal's defending on that counter was not great and Sporting kept it alive. Edwards threaded a lovely pass into Gonçalves in the box, his low shot was well-saved by Turner but Paulinho was there to score the rebound.

07:01 PM

55 minutes: Sporting 1 Arsenal 1

Sporting press well from the front and Arsenal kick long out for a throw. Arsenal are soon into another period of possession in the Sporting half but Coates hammers away Nelson's cross.

Then Sporting really threaten on the counter-attack, and Saliba has to produce an outstanding clearance.

06:57 PM

53 minutes: Sporting 1 Arsenal 1

Arsenal piling the pressure on now. Nelson should really have played Martinelli in, before the Brazilian heads over a Zinchenko cross. Arsenal need to sustain this. In the first half they slacked off after their good spells.

06:56 PM

51 minutes: Sporting 1 Arsenal 1

Arsenal go close again after Sporting play their way into trouble. Vieira caught the strike from 25 yards as sweet as a nut, and it whistled just wide of the post. Attacking encouragement for Arsenal in the last few minutes.

06:55 PM

49 minutes: Sporting 1 Arsenal 1

Good save Adan at the other end! It was a delightful reverse pass from Zinchenko, but the Sporting goalkeeper stood firm as Martinelli tried to lift it over him from a tight angle. Brilliant from the 'left-back'.

06:54 PM

47 minutes: Sporting 1 Arsenal 1

Arsenal guilty of losing the ball when they are open, and Turner has to beat away a Trincao shot from a tight angle. No changes from Amorim or Arteta at the breatk.

06:52 PM

The players are back out for the second half

Can Arsenal step things up in the second half?

06:39 PM

What will Arteta be saying?

I think he'll be a bit annoyed at Arsenal trying to take the proverbial out of their opponents at times, attracting pressure with an extra touch or pass in the right areas. When Arsenal progress the ball with tempo they look dangerous.

06:37 PM

One of Arsenal's best players so far

06:35 PM

Sam Dean on a worrying trend

Why have Arsenal suddenly become so bad at defending corners? It's an increasingly concerning issue for Arteta's side. In recent weeks they have conceded set piece goals against Bournemouth, Brentford, Everton and Manchester United.

06:35 PM

HT: Sporting 1 Arsenal 1

As tends to be the case with these mix-and-match XIs in the Europa League, it has been a mixed bag from Arsenal. Some strong spells with nice interplay, but a couple of bad moments from Turner at the back, notably from the Sporting corner for the equaliser. Arsenal just need to stay professional and do the basics right, they can all-but finish this tie tonight.

06:33 PM

45+2 minutes: Sporting 1 Arsenal 1

Turner with almost a disastrous moment, with Sporting pouncing on a short pass he attempted in his own box. He was lucky the first touch was heavy and Arsenal were able to clear.

06:32 PM

45 minutes: Sporting 1 Arsenal 1

Another dangerous Arsenal delivery, and Adan did well to get something on it as Nelson threatened to get a touch on Xhaka's cross. The goalkeeper goes down and wastes some time.

06:30 PM

44 minutes: Sporting 1 Arsenal 1

Xhaka's header was actually not far from cross the line, it was a good save from Adan. Martinelli peels out to the left, but his cross towards Saka was too strong.

Arsenal then do really well to play out of a tight spot and flow forward, and Nelson wins a free-kick.

There will be three minutes of added time.

06:27 PM

41 minutes: Sporting 1 Arsenal 1

Arsenal's interplay down their right has been lovely so far, Vieira's influence on the game is growing. His clips in another cross that is glanced behind for a corner, from which Adan is called into a save. It was Xhaka with a back post header.

06:25 PM

39 minutes: Sporting 1 Arsenal 1

Sporting throw a punch back, Edwards unleashing a shot from 25 yards which Turner does really well to tip around the post. This time, Arsenal defend the corner and clear.

06:24 PM

37 minutes: Sporting 1 Arsenal 1

Arsenal trying to reassert their dominance, and they are enjoying sustained spell of possession in the Sporting half.

Jorginho feeds Vieira with a lovely pass into the box, and his inswinger cross is scrambled away.

06:21 PM

GOOOOAAALL! Sporting level, another set-piece goal

Arsenal's goalkeeper Turner will not want to see this one again. It was a decent in-swinging deliver but Inacio was only a few yards out when he headed home unmarked. Turner was rooted and Kiwior ducked under it.

06:19 PM

35 minutes: Sporting 0 Arsenal 1

Another moment of sloppiness from Arsenal, Zinchenko's ball towards Nelson was loose, and a deflected shot from distance requires Turner to tip it wide for a corner.

06:17 PM

33 minutes: Sporting 0 Arsenal 1

Arsenal getting a little cocky on the ball just outside their own penalty area, first Zinchenko and then Turner. Edwards picks up the ball in a dangerous position, but Arsenal cover off his attempted through ball. Saka wins a foul near halfway to help Arsenal reestablish some control.

06:15 PM

30 minutes: Sporting 0 Arsenal 1

Sporting with their first attack in some time but Edwards' cross is skimmed clear by Turner. Martinelli tracks back Coates all the way into his own half to help Arsenal win the ball back. Jorginho and Zinchenko helps Arsenal play out from deep.

Zinchenko is down after a collision with Paulinho, looked a clash of knees, but he looks to be back to his feet.

06:13 PM

28 minutes: Sporting 0 Arsenal 1

Sporting struggling to deal with Arsenal's work rate - neither working their way through the pressure with short passes or finding a more direct outlet. Saka floats in a cross but it is straight down the goalkeeper's throat.

06:11 PM

25 minutes: Sporting 0 Arsenal 1

Right from the restart, Vieira was running at the Sporting back five and Coates tripped him up. Arsenal call for a second yellow, but a referee is never going to give one so soon after the first. Arsenal in a strong position now.

Zinchenko shoots into the wall, but his follow-up effort is fizzed towards goal and Adan tips over.

06:09 PM

Confirmed: Goal given

We are back under as the clock strikes 24.

06:09 PM

There was some afters after the goal

It seems Coates and Zinchenko have been booked which means the Sporting defender misses the second leg.

Sporting felt Zinchenko was wrestling a defender at the back post.

The game has not kicked off some two minutes later.

06:08 PM

GOOOAAALL! Saliba heads Arsenal into the lead

Sporting are appealing for a foul, but after Vieira won a corner down the right Saliba rose highest in the box to glance home a textbook header. It was an excellent delivery from Vieira and Saliba was unmarked.

06:05 PM

20 minutes: Sporting 0 Arsenal 0

Patient build-up play from Arsenal but Coates is all over Martinelli to win the ball back when they look for the striker. Arsenal are starting to get on top in this game after a shaky start.

Inacio stands on Vieira's achilles and concedes a foul on halfway.

06:03 PM

18 minutes: Sporting 0 Arsenal 0

Sporting's short corner is poorly executed and they end up all the way back with their goalkeeper. Trincao finds some space down the left, but White sticks to his tasks and Arsenal see out the danger. Reiss Nelson on his toes to win a loose ball in midfield.

06:00 PM

15 minutes: Sporting 0 Arsenal 0

Both Saka and Martinelli are drifting off their starting positions wide right and central, picking up pockets of space. Sporting trying to test Arsenal's high line with the long ball, but this one skips through to Turner.

Then Sporting win a corner thanks to Edwards' dribbling down the right. It was a loose pass from Jorginho originally.

05:58 PM

13 minutes: Sporting 0 Arsenal 0

Sporting clear the corner, but Arsenal keep them boxed in their own half.

Much better from Arteta's team. Xhaka keeps a chipped Vieira cross alive, and Nelson sees a shot from inside the penalty area blocked. Feels like Arsenal are starting to find their rhythm.

05:56 PM

11 minutes: Sporting 0 Arsenal 0

Play stops for a couple of minutes with Paulinho down after a knock. Arteta gets his players over for a mini-team talk.

Good work from first Saka, and then Martinelli, to turn and dribble at the Sporting defence. Arsenal have their first corner of the night.

Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta with Jakub Kiwior, Bukayo Saka and Jorginho REUTERS/Pedro Nunes - REUTERS/PEDRO NUNES
Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta with Jakub Kiwior, Bukayo Saka and Jorginho REUTERS/Pedro Nunes - REUTERS/PEDRO NUNES

05:54 PM

8 minutes: Sporting 0 Arsenal 0

Nice run through midfield from Vieira for Arsenal but he and Martinelli were not on the same wavelength. Sporting content to let Arsenal have the ball in deep areas, the visitors need to try and turn them earlier.

Good burst from Esgaio down the right for Sporting, but Saliba clears his low cross. Sporting carrying a threat.

05:51 PM

6 minutes: Sporting 0 Arsenal 0

Quick feet from Nelson to burst down the left but it was always difficult for Martinelli to get over the header.

First chance of the game falls to Sporting and Goncalves! Jorginho caught out with a long ball over the top having found himself in a centre-back position. Goncalves cut inside from the left channel but his shot was always going wide.

05:49 PM

4 minutes: Sporting 0 Arsenal 0

Saliba does well to defend a long ball on the cover, but Kiwior's pass sells White a little short and he hoofs out for a throw. Arsenal press Sporting back into their own box, and Martinelli threatens to pinch it off the goalkeeper Adan.

Both teams reluctant to send the ball forward too early with long balls.

05:47 PM

2 minutes: Sporting 0 Arsenal 0

Lots of empty green seats in the stadium which tends to be the case for these early kick offs - the ground fills up as the locals finish work. Arsenal seeing a lot of the ball right from kick off, but all of their possession is in front of the home team.

05:45 PM


Arsenal get us going, playing in red and white.

05:44 PM

Granit Xhaka captains Arsenal tonight

Says plenty about his resurgence and Arsenal's season that it will attract little attention.

05:43 PM

The players are on their way out

Arsenal's team features some key players. The reward for going strong can be to make the second leg a formality. I think coaches also think players are more likely to conserve energy if the performance is cohesive.

Sporting have four players who are a yellow card away from missing the game at the Emirates.

05:41 PM

Sam Dean from Lisbon on Arsenal's squad depth

For much of this season, Arsenal's bench has been filled with academy kids who have little chance of actually making it onto the pitch. The lack of depth was, at times, startling. Then everything changed in January, when Leandro Trossard, Jakub Kiwior and Jorginho joined the club.

Sadly for Arsenal, they are now back in the situation where the bench looks worryingly thin. Especially in attack, where Trossard (groin) and Martin Odegaard (unwell) are absent tonight, along with Eddie Nketiah (ankle) and Gabriel Jesus (knee). Kieran Tierney is also missing through illness.

This is how Arsenal's bench looks tonight: Ramsdale (g), Hillson (g), Partey, Gabriel, Smith Rowe, Holding, Tomiyasu, Bandeira, Sagoe Jr, Smith, Walters

As you can see, there are not many experienced attacking options there.

05:34 PM

No rest for Bukayo Saka once again

Arsenal's Bukayo Saka kicks the ball during a warm up before the Europa League round of 16, - AP/Armando Franca
Arsenal's Bukayo Saka kicks the ball during a warm up before the Europa League round of 16, - AP/Armando Franca

05:33 PM

Arteta on the Bournemouth win and trusting Kiwior

Emotionally, a really intense moment it gave us a big boost but now is a completely different competition against a very tough opponent.

That's our aim for sure. Every competition you play for this club you have to be here to win it. We made six changes because we had issues with several players, some who are not him.

Kiwior is a player we really like and he has to start somewhere.

05:28 PM

Martin Keown on Arsenal's selection

I think Mikel Arteta has picked a really good team tonight. There is enough strength in there, even with the six changes. They still look strong.

05:11 PM

Can Sporting trouble Arsenal?

Arsenal have kept a clean sheet in four of their last five games in the Europa League, although each
of the last five goals they have conceded in the competition have come in away games.

04:58 PM

Not often you wait so long to see a new signing these days

04:45 PM

Arteta names a strong team despite six changes

I make that three of Arsenal's first-choice back four, one of their first-choice midfield three and two of their first-choice front three.

Arteta's hands were tied somewhat: Tierney and Odegaard miss out through illness, while Trossard and Nketiah have knocks. Jesus did not travel to Portugal.

Slightly surprised that the Arsenal manager has risked Zinchenko with Tomiyasu available. In an ideal world, I'm sure he would liked to have benched Saka, but not sure there are options.

04:41 PM

And there is the Sporting team...

04:39 PM

Arsenal team: Kiwior in for debut, no Jesus in squad

04:16 PM

How strong will Arteta go in the Europa League?

It is more than four months since Arsenal last played in Europe and this evening they restart their Europa League campaign with an away last-16 first leg against Sporting CP.

With Mikel Arteta's team five points clear at the top of the Premier League with 12 games to go, the importance of this competition will be debated. Arsenal are 99 per cent certain to be playing Champions League football this season, which is usually a key incentive to go for the Europa League. In order to hold off the challenge of Manchester City, Arsenal need all of the margins in their favour and it could be argued this is a needless distraction.

That said, Arsenal have not won a European trophy since 1994 which is a poor return for a club of their resources, and they should be able to navigate Europa League opposition while rotating their team. The January arrivals of Jorginho, Jakukb Kiowir and Leandro Trossard made the squad deeper, though Trossard and Eddie Nketiah's short-term injuries leave them a little light up front at present. The return of Gabriel Jesus will help, and the Brazilian has travelled with the squad to Lisbon and there is an outside chance he could feature from the bench.

Sporting coach Ruben Amorim is tipped to be a rising star, and his team impressed in their Champions League group games against Tottenham. Former Spurs academy product Marcus Edwards will be up for facing Arsenal, although there is a friendly face in Sporting's ranks in the form of Hector Bellerin. Sporting are weakened by the absence of defensive midfielder Manuel Ugarte due to suspension.

From an Arsenal perspective, all eyes are on how strong Arteta is prepared to go in order to take command of the tie tonight. Arsenal travel to Fulham on Sunday.

Full team news on the way shortly.