Arsenal exit Europa League after penalty shoot-out defeat

Mikel Arteta’s young Arsenal side have been set on making history this season and, in a way, they did so here. Never before has there been a competitive penalty shootout at the Emirates Stadium and, against Sporting Lisbon in the Europa League, the history books will show that this first decider went against the home side.

It was not, clearly, the memory that Arsenal had hoped to create in their own home. Nor was it the performance that Arteta would have expected from his players, who have been so strong in the Premier League but looked so flimsy for so much of this game in European competition. 

More concerning than the shootout defeat, perhaps, is the effect of this gruelling encounter on the physical state of Arsenal’s squad. William Saliba and Takehiro Tomiyasu both limped out of the game in the first half, while the likes of Leandro Trossard and Oleksandr Zinchenko were hobbling painfully by the end of extra time.

With Crystal Palace looming on Sunday, Arsenal’s medical team must move quickly to fix the bodies of the players. And Arteta must also move quickly to ensure this loss does not do any damage to their psychological condition. A penalty shootout defeat, in front of your own fans, is never pleasant. 

“For most of the game we weren’t on the level we should be,” said Martin Odegaard, the Arsenal captain. “We didn’t play our best football. We have to remember it’s been a great season. It is a big blow to go out of this competition, but now we look forward to the league, that’s all we can do now.

“We win and lose together. When we’re winning everyone is happy, when we lose we have to pick up the spirit.”

It was Gabriel Martinelli, so often the hero for Arsenal this season, who missed the crucial effort here. Sporting goalkeeper Antonio Adan had produced a pair of miraculous saves in extra time, when Arsenal also struck the post through Leandro Trossard, but it would be unfair on Ruben Amorim’s side to describe them as fortunate. 

As memorable as the shootout, if not more so, was Sporting’s astonishing equaliser on the night. Pedro Goncalves might never again score a goal like it, having launched the ball towards Aaron Ramsdale’s goal from close to the halfway line. It soared almost in slow-motion, from what must have been a different postcode, before dipping at the last second and falling softly into the Arsenal net. 

It was a moment of astonishing quality and it changed the course of this tie, after Granit Xhaka had given Arsenal the lead in the first half. At that point it seemed as if Arteta’s side would cruise to victory, having drawn 2-2 in the first leg in Portugal, and for the home fans there was the added delight of seeing Gabriel Jesus, recovered from his knee injury, back on the Emirates turf.

Arteta had spoken before this meeting about the shortage of “big European nights” at the Emirates in recent years and, for a while, it seemed like this would be a truly memorable occasion — for the right reasons — for the club. A pre-match lights show had set the mood, as did the inclusion of Jesus from the beginning. 

But the trendy Amorim (skinny jeans and bright white trainers on the touchline) had a plan and his Sporting side were impressive for so much of the evening. They pulled Arsenal’s players into positions they did not want to go, changing the tempo and calming the crowd. On the overall balance of play for the first 90 minutes, nobody could claim the better team lost.

Extra time, admittedly, was different. Arteta threw Bukayo Saka, Thomas Partey and Odegaard into the action and Arsenal dominated, seeking the goal that would settle the tie in their favour and keep alive their European dream. When Manuel Ugarte was shown a red card for clattering Saka, it felt as if Arsenal had finally won the mental battle. 

Adan had other ideas, though, and his reflexes proved decisive in the final minutes of extra time, when he saved from Gabriel Magalhaes, and then in the shootout when he dived to his left to deny Martinelli. 

Is defeat a disaster for Arsenal? As a result, no. The league is their priority. But the physical and psychological impact of this evening could be significant, and they will not know until Sunday, when they meet Patrick Vieira’s struggling Palace, how costly this night might be. 

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