Europa League Match Day 4 Preview — Arsenal (3-0-0, 9, +6) vs. Sporting CP (2-0-1, 6, +2)

Arsenal have a chance to wrap up first place in Group E of the Europa League on Thursday when they attempt a sweep of their home-and-home set against Sporting CP.

POTENTIAL STARTING XIs

The Gunners have the maximum nine points through their first three group matches, including a 1-0 road win a fortnight ago on Denny Welbeck’s goal on 78 minutes. That was part of Arsenal’s 11-match winning streak which came to an end in their following contest with a draw at Crystal Palace.

But the unbeaten streak continues and is now at 14 matches (12-2-0) after a 1-1 draw at home versus Liverpool on Saturday. Alexander Lacazette assured the Gunners a split of the points with his equaliser in the 82nd minute, though Arsenal were also the beneficiaries of a disallowed goal that should have been allowed to stand in the first half prior to Liverpool taking the lead through James Milner.

“It was an intense game,” keeper Bernd Leno told the club’s official website. “It was a good game for the fans and we also played very well. I think we deserved to win but the draw is OK because Liverpool are a big team. The way we played was very good.

“I think today we saw that we can play our way against big teams. We controlled Liverpool. We played out from the back. It was not just lucky or lucky things to create from. We played the ball with passes from behind and that’s the way we want to play.”

While it was not a win, many regarded the draw against Liverpool as a positive result since it was a valid measuring stick contest given Arsenal had not played any of England’s “Big Six” since opening the season with losses to Manchester City and Arsenal.

The draw, in which Emery chased the victory late with his attacking substitutions, offered a tangible mark of progress Emery has made in his first season with the club in terms of changing the culture and match preparations of the north London side.

While it took Arsenal 83 minutes to break down Sporting in the reverse fixture, they had the better of the chances in Portugal as they put six of their shots on target before Welbeck notched his winner. The Gunners also did not permit any of Sporting’s 14 shots to trouble Leno, but with the prospects of continuing to mix and match his personnel on the back four due to injuries, Emery is expecting another tough battle.

“Of course the first [target] for us is to finish first in this group,” Emery said at Wednesday’s news conference. “Tomorrow is a very important match because they are second in the table and if we win, we are first in the group. That’s our clear target tomorrow.”

Hector Bellerin shook off a knock that forced him off at halftime of Arsenal’s draw against Crystal Palace to play all 90 minutes versus Liverpool, and it is possible the right back could give way to veteran Stephen Lichtsteiner since Arsenal have a margin of error atop the group. Emery will also get a boost with the expected return of left back Nacho Monreal, who missed the last five contests due to a hamstring injury. Emery was pressed so thin he had moved midfielder Granit Xhaka to left back for a couple of contests.

There likely will be changes across the board to Emery’s first XI, with Guendouzi and Aaron Ramsey potentially reunited as Arsenal’s holding midfielders. There could also be room for Iwobi on the right flank with Welbeck in the playmaking role.

Sporting are in third place in the Portuguese Primeira Liga, two points behind Porto and Braga, but they have won just two of their last five matches in all competitions. Sporting bounced back from a cup elimination at the hands of Estoril Praira with a 2-1 victory at Santa Clara last Sunday.

Bas Dost started Sporting’s rally with a penalty in the 62nd minute before Marcos Acuna grabbed the match-winner on the stroke of the final quarter-hour. It was a welcome return to the starting XI for Bost, whose last start before Sunday came Aug. 28. But as one player returned for Sporting, they are expected to be without midfielder Rodrigo Battaglia, who had to leave Sunday’s win after just 30 minutes.

Jovane Cabral, who appeared as a second-half substitute Sunday, is expected to fill the spot on the right side for Tiago Manuel Matos da Costa Fernandes.

“We know how good a team Arsenal are, especially at home,” the Sporting gaffer said Wednesday. “But we want to bring joy to the supporters that we’re bringing to their stadium. The players have been training fantastically, with a lot of professionalism, and that makes me proud to represent the club in this competition.

“If we make any mistakes, Arsenal will try and punish us. We need to be organised and cohesive. The key is to play for ourselves.”

PUNTERS’ NOTES

Per Ladbrokes, Arsenal are prohibitive favourites to claim all three points and wrap up the top spot in the group with 3/10 odds to win. There are 21/5 odds for a split of the points, and a Sporting victory to keep their hopes of topping the group alive are 9/1.

Oddsmakers are also expecting the Gunners to rack up a few goals, giving them 20/23 odds to win with a total goal count above 2.5. There are also 11/4 odds for a 1-0 or 2-0 scoreline to the hosts. Sporting have 16/1 odds to win with more than 2.5 goals and 20/1 for a shock 0-1 or 0-2 scoreline. There are 11/2 odds on a low-scoring draw, while oddsmakers give a 2-2 deadlock or higher the same odds on a Sporting victory above 2.5 goals — 16/1.

Lacazette leads a list of nine Arsenal players for first-goal honours before Sporting’s Bas Dost can be found on the betting sheet. The France international has 3/1 odds to make it 1-0 to the Arsenal, closely trailed by Aubameyang at 16/5. Denny Welbeck rounds out the top three slots at 7/2, ahead of Eddie Nketiah (4/1) and Henrikh Mkhitaryan. Playmakers Ramsey and Ozil are paired together at 13/2, a touch ahead of Emile Smith-Rowe at 7/1.

After Dost, Montero is the next Sporting option for a 0-1 scoreline with 12/1 odds.

Arsenal’s forward tandem of Lacazette and Aubameyang are better than even money to put one in the back of the net during the match, getting 10/11 and 19/20 odds, respectively, to score over the 90 minutes. Welbeck is near even money at 23/20, while Nektiah is 5/4. Mkhitaryan is also below 2/1 odds, checking in with a 13/8 return.

Sporting’s top three options or Bost, Montero and Nani, with Bost leading the way at 14/5, while Montero and the one-time United winger Nani both listed at 7/2.

PREDICTION

With the international break on the horizon, Arsenal must resist the urge to sprint to Sunday’s league contest against struggling Wolverhampton and, as Emery said, “to give a big match our personality.” While it is not the blooding of youth predecessor Arsene Wenger did previously with this tournament, Emery has developed a rotation that has slowly climbed near 20 players who he can count on without a troublesome fall-off.

That will be the case here as Emery could conceivably make as many as nine changes from his Liverpool XI around his central defence pairing of Rob Holding and Shkodran Mustafi. It likely will not reach that total, but Iwobi is one player who is starting to become a more integral part of the attacking unit behind the primary four as evidenced by his assist on Lacazette’s equaliser.

This could be another chance to steal a rest for some of his league regulars, primarily midfielders Lucas Torreira and Mesut Ozil. Emery has almost always put the right foot forward when it comes to his attacking substitutions, and given Arsenal’s current form, none of his choices on the sidelines are bad ones.

Sporting do not necessarily have to sit back and absorb pressure in this contest — they have a three-point lead over Vorskla for second in the group and already recorded a 2-1 victory at the Hungarian side last month. Sporting also have a solid advantage in goal difference, and another 1-0 loss to the Gunners will be far from the end of the world.

The problem is Arsenal are in far too fine a form to be held to just one goal, especially at home. Look for the Gunners to take care of business and book a spot in the knockout round in relatively easy fashion.

PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Arsenal 4, Sporting CP 1.

OTHER EUROPA LEAGUE MATCH DAY 4 PREVIEWS:

BATE (1-0-2, 3, -3) vs. Chelsea (3-0-0, 9, +4)

Europa League Match Day 3 Preview — Sporting CP (2-0-0, 6, +3) vs. Arsenal (2-0-0, 6, +5)

In the span of less than three months, Arsenal have gone for having near zero expectations under new manager Unai Emery to the new boss pleading to supporters not to get carried away after arguably their most impressive victory of the season that also extended the Gunners’ run to 10 on the trot.

Such is the fickle nature in north London as Arsenal face Portuguese side Sporting CP on Thursday in a top of the table clash in Group E of the Europa League.

POTENTIAL STARTING XIs

Arsenal are fourth in the table on 21 points, bookended by London rivals Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur while lurking two points behind reigning champions Manchester City and Liverpool. The Gunners have scored 22 goals in league play, second only to City (26), and that has carried over to Europa League action, where they have bagged seven more in their two wins to lead Group E on goal difference.

The 10-match winning streak in all competitions is Arsenal’s longest such run since reeling off 11 victories on the bounce from Jan. 10-March 30, 2004, part of the dominant run of the “Invincibles” who were the last team to navigate an entire Premier League season undefeated.

Arsenal’s 3-1 victory over Leicester City on Monday evoked memories of that famous side, with slick passing and a flowing offence that shook off a sluggish first half-hour to put on a master class of football in the final 60 minutes. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang had a brace for the second straight match while Mesut Ozil had a goal and set up Aubameyang’s second goal on 66 minutes.

“I don’t have to tell you he’s a good player, he has shown that for the past years,” defender Shkodran Mustafi told Arsenal’s official website of Ozil, “and when you give him the opportunity to  play in his favourite position just behind the striker he is capable of doing anything and I think he showed he can assist, score goals and make us look very dangerous going forward.”

Ozil’s play was what Gunners supporters have been longing for from the former Germany international, whose inconsistencies at times have been maddening to watch and arguably contributed to Arsenal slipping to second-tier status in recent years. But while the wins are piling up, Emery has warned against thinking Arsenal are now title contenders.

“It was very important for us to beat Leicester because they’re not far behind us. Now we’ve created a lot of distance with the teams behind us,” the gaffer said. “Now in front we are looking at teams like Liverpool, like Manchester City, like Chelsea, but it’s not important to think about the end. We need to think about the next match against Crystal Palace on Sunday and I also think the Europa League is very important on Thursday.”

To that end, Emery looks like he will not mess too much with a good thing, most notably leaving the red-hot Aubameyang in his first XI. He has five goals and an assist in his last four matches, and the four goals in the last two contests have come in a span of 89 minutes.

While keeper Petr Cech has been cleared to play, he did not accompany the team on this trip as Bernd Leno will again be between the sticks. That, however, may change for Arsenal’s league match against Palace since Cech had been the No. 1 in Premier League play.

There is also the chance of a Uruguay reunion on the field as Arsenal midfielder Lucas Torreira and Sporting defender Sebastian Coates could meet. Both were instrumental in helping La Celeste reach the quarterfinals in the World Cup this summer in Russia, where they lost to eventual champions France. Torreira’s dogged play in the midfield in front of Uruguay’s back four was a key factor in Arsenal signing the 22-year-old.

Sporting have claimed the maximum six points in their group matches with a 2-0 home victory over Qarabag and a 2-1 triumph at Vorskla in their most recent Europa League encounter earlier this month. The Portuguese side are fifth domestically on 13 points, four back of Benfica and Braga, and are still rebuilding to a degree after supporters attacked players and staff at the end of last season for failing to qualify for the Champions League.

That led many players — most notably goalkeeper and Portugal No. 1 Rui Patricio — to cancel their contracts with the club and seek work elsewhere. While they have yet to face Arsenal in league play, Patricio has caught the attention of the Premier League in helping promoted Wolverhampton reach the top half of the table thus far.

The Verde e Brancos have lost two of their last three league matches and are coming off a 4-2 defeat at Portimonense last Saturday, shipping four goals in a domestic match or the first time since a 4-1 cup defeat to Benfica in 2010. Sporting twice pulled within one goal in the second half, first through Fredy Montero and again through Coates on 88 minutes, but a stoppage-time marker by Portimonense put the contest out of reach.

Sporting have missed Patricio to a degree, recording three clean sheets in their 10 overall matches while conceding 10 goals. Patricio had 20 shutouts in 48 matches across all competitions in 2017-18.

Montero, one-time Manchester United winger Nani and Jovane Cabral share the team lead in scoring with three goals, and Cabral has bagged two of his coming off the bench in just 24 minutes of Europa League action. Bruno Fernandes has yet to show the scintillating form that led to 15 goals and 14 assists in all competitions last season, but he does have two goals and two assists in Sporting’s nine matches.

PUNTERS’ NOTES

Per Ladbrokes, Arsenal are clear favourites to return to London with three points and the Group E lead as they have 19/20 odds to post a victory. The odds of the teams remaining level on points through a draw are 5/2, while Sporting have 11/4 odds to pull off a surprise and take the group lead for a fortnight before the return encounter at the Emirates.

The Gunners have 2/1 odds to win this match with more than 2.5 goals and 15/4 odds to be victorious via 0-1 or 0-2 scoreline. That is slightly longer than a low-scoring draw (7/2), and Sporting odds to claim all three points in a match of three goals (5/1) is slightly better than two or fewer (7/1).

There is no lack of options for first goal-scorers among Arsenal players as Welbeck, Lacazette and Aubameyang all share joint honours at 4/1. Gunners teenage striker Eddie Nketiah is just behind his more seasoned teammates at 5/1, and Mkhitaryan rounds out the top five to give the Londoners a 0-1 lead at 11/2. Bas Dost is the top choice for the hosts at 6/1 to open the scoring, while Abdoulaye Diaby and Fredy Montero are right behind him at 13/2.

Lacazette and Aubameyang have some separation from Welbeck for scoring at any point during the 90 minutes, sharing top billing at 7/5 compared to Welbeck’s 6/4 odds. Nketiah lurks slightly further back at 7/4, and Mkhitaryan again completes the top five options with 2/1 odds on an anytime goal. Aaron Ramsey and fellow Arsenal teenager Emile Smith-Rowe offer 21/10 odds on a goal, and Bost again leads the pack of Sporting options at 11/5.

PREDICTION

While it’s not the “rainy Tuesday night in Stoke” test, this match does represent a step up in class of competition for Arsenal, who it can be argued were favourites to win all 10 of their matches during this winning streak.

Still, the groundswell of support the Gunners are enjoying during the honeymoon period under Emery is a welcome change to the clashing factions under predecessor Arsene Wenger. With each victory in each passing week, the distance grows between the culture of Arsenal’s past under the Frenchman and the one Emery is creating like a meticulous mason building a foundation.

Ozil’s sprinkle of magic dust, however, is what could lift Arsenal to that next level. It may not be title-contention worthy as there is still a noticeable gulf in class between the Gunners and both Manchester City and Liverpool, and Chelsea to a lesser extent, but a top-four finish is definitely there for the taking.

They were irresistible in that hour against the Foxes, but it was the fact it was only an hour still gives pause to Arsenal being a juggernaut. Leicester took a deserved lead in that first 30 minutes, and arguably could have grabbed a second before Arsenal swung the match.

Sporting have the attacking depth to give Arsenal’s back line a severe test, especially through the middle with Fernandes and Montero, along with Nani on the right. Nani had two goals and an assist in eight career matches versus Arsenal, but more importantly, his teams were 6-1-1 in those contests.

This is a contest where Sporting can begin to re-establish the club’s identity following the disastrous spring occurrences, and a draw between the sides to set up a return engagement in London in a fortnight for the top of the group seems like the most likely outcome.

PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Sporting CP 1, Arsenal 1.

OTHER EUROPA LEAGUE MATCH DAY 3 PREVIEWS:

Chelsea (2-0-0) vs. BATE (1-0-1)