The clock was already ticking as Mikel Arteta returned to the Arsenal dressing room and inspected the emotional and physical damage of a bruising exit from the Europa League. Without time to waste, Arteta turned his team’s attention to what is the sole focus of their season, and the “11 finals” that stand between now and a first Premier League title in 19 years.
The first of which, against Crystal Palace on Sunday, may prove to be one of their toughest remaining tests. That may seem at odds with Palace’s form, which has led to Patrick Vieira’s sacking after a 12-game winless run this year, but Arsenal now have much more to overcome. As well as the knocks and injuries that will accompany what turned into a brutal battle against Sporting, Arsenal must also deal with the disappointment of this latest setback.
“A huge blow,” Arteta admitted, but the night may carry a more significant cost within the context of the title race. William Saliba was forced off in the first half, joining the injured Takehiro Tomiyasu – who left the Emirates on crutches. Both Gabriel Magalhaes and Aaron Ramsale received treatment during the game, Oleksandr Zinchenko was seen hobbling late on, while Bukayo Saka’s appearance from the bench did not spare him from several crunching challenges.
Gabriel Martinelli must deal with having made the decisive miss in the penalty shoot-out, as well as a further 120 minutes added onto his workload, with both Granit Xhaka and Gabriel also playing for longer than Arteta would have liked given their minutes this season. It was too soon for Arteta to know who was available for Sunday and who was not. By then, late on Thursday night, it was past 11pm and kick-off against Crystal Palace was less than 63 hours away.
Arsenal, though, have been through this before. Last month’s defeat to Manchester City had the potential to derail their title challenge completely, only for Arsenal to manage another minimal turnaround to defeat Aston Villa. That victory at Villa Park, which came so soon after that bitter blow against Pep Guardiola’s side, sparked new life into their season and carried them to their current run of five straight Premier League wins.
A similar result against Crystal Palace on their swift return to the Emirates would take Arsenal into the international break eight points clear of City, with 10 games of the season remaining. It’s still more than a quarter of the Premier League season but the finish line would be in sight, and with no other distractions. It’s why while Arteta talked about the “disappointment” of Arsenal’s Europa League exit, the Spaniard reflected on the “clarity” it now gives their season.
Consider Manchester City, who in April are likely to play eight times in three different competitions. If the champions defeat Burnley on Saturday to progress to the FA Cup semi-finals, it will add to a two-legged Champions League quarter-final, as well as Premier League games against Arsenal and Liverpool that month. With City’s bid to win the Champions League drawing more pressure and demanding more energy year on year, Guardiola’s side could find themselves emotionally and physically stretched in a way that harms their title defence.
It’s why the prevailing feeling from Arsenal’s exit is they had been given a blessing in disguise, even if that attitude is not in line with Arteta’s approach and was dismissed by the Spaniard. But the reality Sporting helped expose is that Arsenal haven’t got the squad to compete on two fronts and manage the five additional games that a run to the Budapest final would have brought. “If you go through and win it’s magnificent, if you don’t it’s a different story,” reflected Arteta, who named strong teams in both legs and has perhaps been saved from himself as much as anything.
There may yet be a price, if Arsenal are weakened against Crystal Palace and drop points, which in turn opens the door to Manchester City. For Arsenal, though, the circumstances mean that, like against Aston Villa, any win will do and a result may need to be ground out to simply get through to a two-week break. Defeat to Sporting has only sharpened Arsenal’s focus, and their exit from the Europa League may yet be a defining moment in the title race.