Eventually, when the story of this season comes to be written it might just be that this goes down as a crucial night in Arsenal’s greatest season since the Invincibles.
But it’s going to take a while before that possibility of the greater good can be realised because this was agonising. It’s also not really what you want to think about. On a night that served as a glorious reminder of why this is a difficult and worthwhile competition to win in the eyes of everyone outside the often suspicious and airily dismissive English game, you don’t want sensible stuff about clear focus for what will be an exhausting last 10 weeks of the season and the benefits of breaking the preparation-rotting Thursday-Sunday-Thursday cycle.
What a pisser, though. When it came down to the penalty shoot-out it was already clear Arsenal had chosen the most damaging course through the evening, it was just whether it was the most damaging means of progress or the most damaging means of exit. Exit may well yet prove the best outcome for the season as a whole, but for that to be the case the Gunners must go to the well once more and recover emotionally, mentally and physically from this. The 120 minutes of effort here – after 90 minutes of toil in Lisbon – made it clear that the players had no inclination to look for elimination-based silver linings in the fixture list. Arsenal have a miserable record in continental competition for a club of their stature, and this competition offered a huge chance to improve it.
Sporting, who are having an extremely odd season, may well now lay claim to the single best performance by a visiting side at the Emirates during this campaign. Not even City controlled proceedings the way Sporting did during the 90 minutes of high-quality normal time. Arsenal’s lead came against the run of play and Sporting’s equaliser – their absurd Nayim-tinged equaliser – was as astonishing as it was deserved.
It’s a goal that will be talked about for decades, and one Aaron Ramsdale will have to live with. In truth, though, he was not as much at fault as goalkeepers usually are for this kind of nonsense. Yes, he was performatively sweeper-keeping where he needn’t have. But he also got back sufficiently to leave Pedro Goncalves with barely a square foot of space in which to plant his 50-yard strike. Plant it he did. It was a breathtaking goal.
Generally, if we’re honest with ourselves, most goals from at or near the halfway line may be astonishing and breathtaking to watch but have something inrinsically a little bit wanky about them. The ball usually bounces apologetically into the net as a clown-shoes goalkeeper falls over or flails desperately backwards to get a hand on the ball without the strength to keep it out. It’s rare for one to be as pure a hit as this one was, its trajectory flat and true and taking it dipping just under the crossbar. Ramsdale did everything he could to prevent it, but the strike was just too good.
It was a better if less enormous goal than Nayim’s, although for full points it should probably have been scored by former Spurs man Marcus Edwards. He had his chance to win the game in 90 minutes soon after, but smashed his shot into poor Ramsdale’s face and thus earned the Arsenal keeper a painful if welcome redemption arc. In the cold light of day, and because football is silly, Ramsdale may ultimately find himself rueing his failure to keep out the less convincing of Sporting’s penalties than the 50-yard howitzer that ultimately took us to spot-kicks.
Sounds daft, but the third and fourth efforts in Sporting’s perfect five from five were distinctly saveable. The third in particular, which Ramsdale laid two firm hands on but could palm only into the side netting rather than round the post, was that rarest of beasts: a penalty where the keeper really should have done better.
But it was not just the nature of Sporting’s equaliser or the inevitable what ifs of a shoot-out that will grind Arsenal gears. It’s that as well as the emotional baggage they may now carry from this game they have new injury concerns, have put miles in the legs of all their key players – Saka, Partey and Odegaard were all introduced after Sporting’s equaliser – and gone out anyway.
Yet there really are positives too. Arsenal’s exit was not the result of a poor performance, but rather the finest margins at the end of a very good one. If Sporting were the better side across the first 90 minutes of the night, Arsenal – by now with something approaching a first XI on the pitch – dominated extra-time and would have found a winner but for the brilliance of Adan in the Sporting goal.
No visiting team has played this well at the Emirates all season, and it’s unlikely anyone else still to come here will change that. And it still ended 1-1 after 120 minutes where Arsenal had at least as many opportunities to land a decisive blow as their opponents. They’re a daft side, though Sporting. Make no sense. Clearly excellent. And yet… They’re only fourth in the Portuguese league but we can say with some conviction they are significantly better than the team currently fourth in England. And we don’t mean that as banter, we’ve seen it.
Sporting had Spurs’ measure home and away in what was a piss-poor, topsy-turvy Champions League group. The absurdity of that section is still being extended long after it finished, Sporting having somehow contrived to finish below both Spurs and Eintracht Frankfurt and yet now being the last member of the group still in Europe.
On this evidence, few will relish facing them in the last eight. But the fact they sit fourth domestically and came third in their Champions League group means we can deduce they don’t play like this every week. Because we’ve watched them four times now against the North London teams and nothing about their overall season makes sense on that basis.
Arsenal for their part must regroup quickly and can consider themselves fortunate it is Palace who await them on Sunday rather than a team with the weapons or confidence to exploit any lingering weariness of body or mind after this bruising and exhausting night. They should still win that one and then have the international break to pull themselves together.
Their fixture list certainly now looks less complicated, and the fact they now keep the extra two days’ prep before the potentially pivotal trip to the Etihad could be vital. A win tonight would have seen the game against Southampton on Friday April 21 moved to Sunday 23, with City the following Wednesday. It’s certainly a useful side-feature of elimination even if that’s not how Mikel Arteta and his players will see it now.
Because Arsenal have also lost the safety net for this brilliant yet now fragile season. There’s no guarantee this Arsenal side gets another chance like this, and if they come up short in the league now they will be left to venerate a thrillingly brilliant season that in the end delivered nothing more tangible than a second-place finish. And that’s just a bit too Spurs, isn’t it?