It wasn’t the most pulsating night of action, but Arsenal did get the point they needed to seal qualification to the Round of 32 even though they lost two players to injury. Who were the winners and losers?
Winner: Sebastian Coates
The Uruguayan defender was once a can’t miss defensive prospect. Seriously, when Uruguay won the 2011 Copa América they did so with Coates next to Diego Lugano at the heart of defence. Coates benched Diego Godín! But then a move to Liverpool ended in misery, and it appeared his meteoric rise was going to end with him crashing back to earth.
How nice, then, to see him rock up at the Emirates and play with such impeccable assurance. This was vintage Coates, the Uruguayan was powerful, poised, athletic (well, athletic enough) and tactically one step-ahead of every Arsenal attacker. Coates repelled countless Arsenal attacks and was a huge reason why the game finished 0-0 instead of, say, 3-0.
Loser: Danny Welbeck
Just how unlucky can one man be? Danny Welbeck is a delightful footballer, a wonderful blend of ceaseless hard work, genuinely impressive athleticism and intelligent and perceptive tactical play. He has everything in him to be world-class but for two flaws: inconsistent finishing and, sadly, a propensity to just get hurt.
Injuries can be quite logical. A player’s hamstring goes once and they’re never the same (e.g. Michael Owen). Or knee ligaments are snapped and so the strain put on the rest of the leg leads to a history of muscle injuries (e.g. Owen Hargreaves). But sometimes injuries are just senseless and cruel, as is the case with Danny Welbeck.
The Englishman has picked up all manner of injuries over the course of his career, with absolutely no logic to them. And tonight he injured his ankle quite horrifically simply when trying to land after an aerial challenge. It was so innocuous and so sad to see him in such pain, being comforted by former Manchester United team-mate Nani, especially as he had just been recalled to the England squad.
Some guys just have no luck. Get well soon, Welbz!
Loser: Jeremy Mathieu
Jeremy Mathieu has won the Treble. That is something that probably shouldn’t be overlooked. The Frenchman was a key part of Barcelona’s success in those first two seasons under Luis Enrique. He provided the kind of physical presence and tactical smarts that Samuel Umtiti has done with much greater quality since 2016.
Because of how poor his last season was, many perceive Mathieu as a flop. But the truth is he just needs to play regularly. So now he’s doing that for Sporting he is absolutely capable of shining, much as he did at the Emirates. Mathieu was colossal tonight, regularly getting his head to crosses and making sure Sporting’s goal was relatively untroubled.
But then he got sent off for making a rash last-man tackle on Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, so he has to be a loser.
Loser: Eddie Nketiah
Eddie Nketiah is a young striking sensation. The teenager has been on form for club and country (he has scored two in four for England u-21’s this year) and would have liked to be involved in the Europa League. One gets the feeling if it wasn’t so important Arsenal win the competition this year he would have been.
Still, Nketiah was scheduled to come on for the last 15 minutes to try and help Arsenal sneak a winner. It wouldn’t have been a long cameo, but certainly enough for a talent like Nketiah to make a difference. And then Stephan Lichtsteiner pulled up with what seemed like a hamstring injury and had to be replaced with Arsenal’s last change, leaving Nketiah out of luck on the bench.
Winner: Sporting Portugal
Sporting Clube de Portugal (not Sporting Lisbon) came to North London with the primary aim of getting at least a point from the Emirates Stadium. Sporting came into the game with six points, and they knew that a point would put them two games ahead of Vorskla and Qarabag in joint-third place.
This means that they would need just three points from their remaining two games to secure qualification, and given that they beat both sides in their previous two games, they were very confident in getting that. Well, they got their point, and they can now be confident that they will progress into the knockout rounds.
Loser: Arsenal fans
That… wasn’t pretty. Arsenal fans are a discerning bunch, just winning isn’t enough for them, you have to win with some style and look like you at least sort of know what you’re doing. Arsenal haven’t always excelled this season but they have played with a sense of determination and purpose at least. This has actually changed the atmosphere at the Emirates, the fans are happy!
Tonight, however, had all the hallmarks of the last days of Wenger. A miserable display, slow, stodgy, not taking enough risks and seeing players pick up pointless and painful injuries. Arsenal failed to win a game they were dominating and Unai Emery will hope the return of first-teamers like Alexandre Lacazette, Mesut Ozil and Lucas Torreira can give Arsenal their swagger back because the kind of stagnancy present in this game could be contagious in a bad, bad way.