Why Gunners have waited three years for a night like this
Arsenal have waited three years for a night like this.
The Emirates Stadium will be full for a European knockout game for the first time since the Covid pandemic when the Gunners take on Sporting for a Europa League quarter-finals berth.
Well balanced after last week’s 2-2 draw, the tie promises to be another test of the squad’s new mentality, which has been highlighted by members of the club as key to their success.
The Gunners have mastered the pressure of being top of the Premier League and must now show they can handle the heat of a European knockout game.
It’s also the start of four big days for the squad. On Sunday, a win over Crystal Palace could take them eight points clear of Manchester City at the top of the table.
Determined to keep fighting on two fronts, Mikel Arteta is expected to name a strong team for this round of 16, with Gabriel Jesus pushing for his first start since November. The Brazilian injured his knee at the World Cup and made his comeback for the final 13 minutes of the 3-0 win in Fulham on Sunday.
Arsenal are aware he is yet to play a full game but Arteta is weighing starting the forward and giving him an hour.
The manager said: “Gabby feels good every day when he works out. He says those senses are getting better and better, so that’s really positive.
“We have to manage his minutes and manage his commitment in the squad and in the team.
“You can feel the joy of everyone around him: fans, players, staff. We missed him and now we’re glad he’s back.”
Playing tonight would be a significant step up for Jesus after his cameo in the comfortable win at Fulham.
Given the state of the tie, any excitement Craven Cottage lacks will be there at Emirates Stadium.
The Gunners reached the Europa League semi-finals in 2021, but back then fans couldn’t attend the games.
Their last European knockout game with fans came in February 2020 when Olympiakos came to Emirates Stadium. Youssef El Arabi scored in the 119th minute in Greece’s surprising 2-1 victory and knocked out the hosts.
Only three players from tonight’s matchday squad remain at Arsenal. Hector Bellerin, who started at right-back, is now on loan at Sporting from Barcelona.
“We haven’t had a big European night in three years, mainly because of Covid,” Arteta said.
“Obviously it’s been a long time since we’ve had one of those special nights and now we have to rebuild that.”
Arteta will hope there is no repeat of the chaotic first leg tonight. Arsenal lacked control and looked disjointed after the manager made six changes.
He might not make quite as many tonight but full-backs Kieran Tierney and Takehiro Tomiyasu (left) are both pushing for the start.
Sporting director Ruben Amorim has a headache about his own selection with midfielder Hidemasa Morita and captain Sebastian Coates suspended.
The loss of Coates is a major blow as the former Liverpool defender usually plays at the heart of Sporting’s back three. They are braced for a backlash from Arsenal after last week, especially with Jesus playing.
“We gave almost everything we had in the first leg but I believe players can always do better,” said Amorim. “If Arsenal pick up any more pace then we’ll have a different kit for defense and attack. We’re capable of that.”