83 days and 15 matches since Arsenal last tasted defeat. A rare clean sheet. And safe passage secured to the knockout stages of the Europa League. And yet after Danny Welbeck collapsed to the turf in obvious agony, none of that really seemed to matter.
This was a strange, subdued night at The Emirates, when first Welbeck and then Stephan Lichtsteiner suffered serious injuries. Arsenal never had to leave second gear here, only for the two nasty injuries to suddenly sap all of their momentum, like air rushing from a balloon. Welbeck’s was particularly bad, the forward appearing to dislocate his ankle before being rushed to hospital. Lichtsteiner then collapsed to the turf around an hour later to add insult to injury.
Afterwards, an ashen-faced Unai Emery was in no mood to dwell on Arsenal’s achievements.
“Welbeck has gone to hospital and now we are going to have to wait, but we think it is a serious injury,” he sighed. “He was working well for us and having a good match, but when you are playing in competitive matches this can happen. This is a big injury for him, for us all, and for all the people who love him like a person.”
Arsenal weren’t the only team with problems, of course. Sporting headed to London without a manager after disposing of Jose Peseiro last week, following a 2-1 loss at home to second-tier side Estoril. Understandably then they were content to play for a point, just about managing it despite failing to register a single shot on target for the second European match in succession. The draw keeps alive the slim possibility of them overhauling Arsenal at the top of the group. Don’t bet on it.
Quite how they kept a clean sheet is anybody’s guess, particularly after Jeremy Mathieu was sent off for a tired late lunge on Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang with just a few minutes remaining. But the forward ballooned his free-kick over the crossbar, having earlier fired wastefully into the side-netting from close range. Henrikh Mkhitaryan also had his moments, meandering into the box late on only to prod a tame shot directly into Renan Ribeiro's grateful arms. It was that kind of night.
That this wasn’t to be Arsenal’s evening became apparent halfway through the first-half, when Welbeck fell to the turf. After finding himself linked with January moves to both Crystal Palace and Tottenham in this week’s newspapers, Welbeck surely thought his week couldn’t get any worse, but it was obvious from the moment he tangled legs with Bruno Gaspar that he was in real trouble.
The reaction of his fellow players told you everything you needed to know: Matteo Gunedouzi watched on with horror through splayed fingers as an oxygen mask was was slapped over Welbeck’s face, while Nani crouched on the turf to console his former Manchester United team-mate. The physios who ran onto the pitch appeared to suggest he had suffered a dislocated ankle and, if that’s the case, the rest of his season is in peril. A leg brace was duly applied before he was taken to hospital.
The injury sucked what little atmosphere had been tentatively brewing around the stadium and, watching Welbeck being stretchered down the tunnel, it was difficult not to wonder whether this is the last we will see of him in an Arsenal shirt. Out of contract in the summer, his latest injury will come as a blow to any potential suitors as well as England manager Gareth Southgate, who had earlier that day named him in his squad for the forthcoming internationals against the USA and Croatia.
Just two weeks ago Welbeck was Arsenal’s hero as he cooly slotted home a late winner in Lisbon; how different the circumstances this time around, and what a cruel blow to a player who has been beating on the door of the first-team having scored four times in his five cup outings this season. He had started this match well, too, threatening regularly in an exciting if unlikely strike partnership with Emile Smith Rowe.
This was yet another night where Arsenal’s youngsters shone brightest. Gunedouzi was sent off in his last match but didn’t put a foot wrong here, spraying through-balls down either flank and repeatedly dropping the shoulder to scuttle into space. Ahead of him Smith Rowe was equally impressive, an 18-year-old upstart deployed in the liberating central attacking role that Aaron Ramsey craves almost as much as that £300k-a-week salary.
How can Ramsey complain with a deeper role in Arsenal’s engine room when this is how Smith Rowe performs when handed centre stage? The teenager was electric: repeatedly threatening from distance and gliding into space as if wearing rollerblades, all the time waved forward by an increasingly enthusiastic Emery.
And yet for all of Smith Rowe’s beguiling flicks and tricks, Sporting’s stout rearguard was to hold firm, even after Mathieu was given his marching orders. The Frenchman departed shortly after Lichtsteiner, who tweaked a hamstring lumbering after a long-ball and will join Welbeck on the sidelines. “It is muscular and we are going to do a scan tomorrow to find out his injury,” added Emery.