Arsenal’s latest test is to overcome the physical and mental exertions of a draining shootout defeat

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(Getty Images)

Arsenal were beginning to look as if they could without any more of the Europa League, and now they won’t have to. Defeat on penalties to Sporting and an exit from Europe leaves Mikel Arteta’s side with one clear objective for the rest of the campaign and if there was ever a night to highlight the importance of that, this bruising battle at the Emirates may well have been it. If Arsenal are able to pick themselves up to defeat Crystal Palace on Sunday, and then go on to lift the Premier League title at the end of the season, then this defeat will be quickly overlooked.

Pedro Goncalves ensured he will be remembered, though, with his remarkable goal that forced extra time and duly served Arsenal a further 30 minutes. The Sporting midfielder’s stunning strike from just inside the Arsenal half will go down as the marvel of a rather unwanted evening for the Premier League leaders, who were dragged to the depths of a last-16 tie that deep down, they would admit they could have done without.

Of all the possible scenarios, extra time was probably the worst for Arsenal, who were rather ambling towards the quarter-finals before Goncalves lobbed Aaron Ramsdale from all of 50 yards. Goncalves’ goal was a beautifully delicate moment of vision and inspiration but it caught Arsenal cold. Arteta’s side were seemingly cautious of over-exerting themselves. It had already had a damaging night with William Saliba and Takehiro Tomiyasu both limping off in the first half, while extra time presented further danger.

That was made clear when Manuel Ugarte was sent off by referee Antonio Mateu Lahoz for a brutal and worrying lunge on Bukayo Saka, the latest of a series of increasingly robust challenges from Sporting. Arsenal were already down to their limit, with Arteta digging into reserves that he surely wouldn’t have wanted to reach for to bring on both Saka and Martin Odegaard from the bench. If it was a show of strength to force a brave Sporting side into a retreat, Arsenal were instead grateful to get through the rest of the game unscathed.

Arsenal looked more like themselves with Odegaard and Saka on the pitch but Sporting still forced penalties following an excellent series of saves from the veteran goalkeeper Antonio Adan. Leondro Trossard wasted the best of Arsenal’s chances in extra time, spurning the gift of a back-pass from Adama Diomande as Adan tipped his scuffed shot onto the post. Gabriel Magalhaes was twice denied from Odegaard crosses. Adan would go on to be the hero of Sporting’s night, as he saved Gabriel Martinelli’s penalty in the shootout. Nuno Santos made no mistake from there to seal a famous win.

For Arsenal, and with all due respect to the Europa League, and a night where the Gunners could enjoy a first European knockout game in front of their fans in three years, this will matter a lot less. There is no getting away from where Arsenal’s priorities lie and the opportunity they have to move eight points clear of Manchester City on Sunday is too important to ignore, which naturally leaves nights like tonight as a distraction.

There have not been many matches this season in which you can accuse Arsenal, or even Arteta himself, of lacking the intensity to compete. It was Sporting who brought that here and from the off it was clear which side were playing with their season on the line. That isn’t a criticism of Arsenal, rather than a reflection of the fact that, for them, this was at least the 13th most important game of the rest of their campaign.

 (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

The visitors had given Arteta’s side enough of a warning in last week’s first leg, a night in which Arsenal played better and drew, but from the off Sporting were sharper. Arsenal were rarely anything close to full flight, but they could have had the chance to wrap this tie up before half time following Granit Xhaka’s opener. His first goal since October came courtesy of a costly spill from Adan, who shovelled Martinelli’s shot back into danger following a through ball from Jorginho.

It briefly woke Arsenal from their slumber. The returning Gabriel Jesus was denied byAdan at his near post but Sporting were the side asking the questions that Arsenal never quite seemed to take seriously enough. The visitors were having moments, often when turning Xhaka and Jorginho, but without ever looking clinical. Jeremiah St. Juste was allowed to roam forward before blasting over, before Ugarte’s deflected shot whistled wide. Goncalves changed that, with a stunning piece of improvisation from just inside the Arsenal half.

It was Sporting’s reward for a competitive performance and in response, Saka and Thomas Partey were summoned from the bench. Ramsdale, who was rather embarrassed by Goncalves, redeemed himself by taking a shot from Marcus Edwards to the face when he was through on goal but Arsenal played the rest of normal time without creating a significant chance. Odegaard was the next to be brought on and gave Arsenal their usual spark, but Sporting held on to force penalties. But, by the end of the season, this defeat may go down as a blessing.