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Arsenal vs Sporting CP preview: European Dreams

The Europa League kicks back on, with the Gunners off to Lisbon for their first match of the knockout round

Arsenal FC v AFC Bournemouth - Premier League Photo by James Williamson - AMA/Getty Images

With all of us basking in the afterglow of an iconic league win against Bournemouth, it’s easy to forget that Arsenal are set to rekindle their Europa League aspirations this week. The chance of potentially raising the Premier League trophy has gone from a pipe dream to a realistic possibility faster than we could have all imagined, a possibility that has overtaken and overshadowed all other competitions (and rightly so).

The EFL Cup and FA Cup have long since fallen on the wayside, but the Europa League remains the last auxiliary competition with a real shot at silverware on the line. The Gunners enter the knockout stages after last being active in the EL all the way back in November, beating Zurich 1-0 to clinch their group, ensuring they would avoid one of the potential Champions League clubs that dropped down into Europe’s second-most prestigious club cup competition.

Four months on since Arsenal’s last EL match, Mikel Arteta is facing a very tough conundrum as the Gunners enter the knockout round - go full stream ahead in both the league and Europe, or sacrifice one for the sake of the other. Since only a madman would sacrifice the league while sitting atop it, Europe becomes the obvious potential makeweight. But it doesn’t seem entirely like Mikel to phone it in, so the conundrum only gets more complicated.

Arsenal’s injury issues are perhaps the only hurdle that could force Arteta’s hand. Leandro Trossard’s recent groin injury means that the Gunners are without their first, second, and third choice strikers. I’m no tactical wizard, but it seems hard to have a functioning attack without a striker. The prospect of lining up Gabriel Martinelli through the middle is simultaneously intriguing and frightening. He’s in good goal-scoring form right now and has great movement, but he has played next to no minutes in the nine and creates most of his scoring threat off the edge.

Thanks to the addition of Jorginho, the Gunners have the ability to rotate their midfield more than just about any other position group on the pitch. Fabio Vieira, having joined from Portuguese side Porto, might make for an interesting selection, with his familiarity with the league and with the host’s style of play. A strong midfield will be expected, as the Gunners look to control the pace of the match through the middle of the pitch.

For more discussions about the lineups and score predictions, please make sure to check out Nathan’s post.

I can’t tell you much about Sporting’s roster, but it’s worth noting that they currently sit fourth in the Portuguese Premier League with four wins from their last five matches. However, the match will potentially provide us a bittersweet reunion, as Sporting is the current home of former Arsenal man Hector Bellerin.

If Arsenal can manage a draw, that might be the best case scenario. A win isn’t off the table, but the Gunners have a huge crosstown match on Sunday against a surprisingly formidable Fulham that are pushing for a European qualifying spot of their own. A draw allows the Gunners to host the second leg at home with a strong chance at riding the momentum of the home crowd to the next round.

Thursday’s task is simple: Survive and advance.

WHAT: Arsenal at Sporting CP
WHEN: Thursday, March 9th, 12:45pm EST/9:45am PST/5:45pm BST
WHERE: José Alvalade Stadium, Lisbon, Portugal
HOW TO WATCH: Streaming on the Paramount+ platform.

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