On March 16th, Arsenal’s continental campaign was ended by Sporting CP. The Portuguese side are a whopping 15 points behind runaway league leaders Benfica domestically. However, they were at their very best to secure a penalty shootout victory over their more illustrious opponents at the Emirates Stadium.
Prior to the second leg of the UEFA Europa League last sixteen tie getting underway, OddsChecker, which compares European football odds and offers, had made the Gunners heavy favorites to progress. And that prediction looked accurate when Swiss midfielder Granit Xhaka gave the hosts the lead after just 19 minutes. But Portugal’s fourth-place team would battle back and score a stunning equalizer through the highly rated Pedro Gonçalves. The Portuguese midfielder saw goalkeeper Aaron Ramsdale off his line and rifled home from the halfway line to get the visitors back into the contest.
As the tie progressed, the two sides couldn’t be separated, and the game headed to a dreaded penalty shootout following a 120-minute stalemate. There, Gabriel Martinelli was the unlucky man. His spot kick was saved by former Real Madrid goalkeeper Antonio Adán, allowing Nuno Santos to sweep home the winner and leave his sides traveling supporters to celebrate long into the London evening.
While the defeat was an extremely disappointing one for Mikel Arteta’s side, could it very well be a blessing in disguise?
The Premier League is Now the Sole Focus
While a first-ever continental crown would have been a sensational achievement for the Gunners, the Europa League is not the Champions League. And neither of those is the Premier League, which is the most illustrious competition on the planet. The North London outfit is currently locked in a title fight for the ages with reigning champions Manchester City, and elimination from European competition allows them to refocus their efforts solely on the English top flight.
The Gunners are currently five points clear of Pep Guardiola’s juggernaut and, with barely a third of the season remaining, a first title since the Invincibles of 2004 is a very real possibility. While Arsenal now have only the Premier League to focus on, their rivals from the north are still alive and kicking in three competitions. They have an FA Cup tie against Burnley – who are managed by former captain Vincent Kompany – on the horizon and they are also through to the quarterfinals of the Champions League.
While City have the strength in depth to handle a fight on three fronts, Arsenal barely have the squad required to battle it out for just one. In fact, if you told a Gooner at the start of the campaign that their side would be five points clear at the top of the Premier League with just eleven games remaining, they’d probably have stared at you in disbelief.
The Return of Gabriel Jesus
We saw Arsenal’s lack of strength in depth when their Brazilian striker Gabriel Jesus injured himself on international duty at the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar. With the absence of their star striker, The Gunners had to turn their attention to academy product Eddie Nketiah. While the talented young Englishman has led the line amicably, even managing to net a match-winning double against rivals Manchester United, there can be no disputing that he is a step down from the four-time Premier League-winning former Palmeiras man.
The 25-year-old has recently returned to training for the Gunners and was back in the first team fold for the defeat to Sporting. His return to action couldn’t come quickly enough for Mikel Arteta. His side has a number of difficult tests on the horizon, such as trips to Anfield and the Etihad, as well as hosting Chelsea at the Emirates. But with no distractions remaining, the Gunners have their blinkers on and a first title in almost two decades is in sight. Will former Manchester City striker Jesus be the one to deliver them the crown?