As encounters go, this damp squib was another entirely forgettable affair. It was more notable for for a plethora of other reasons than the quality of the football on the pitch, with Arsenal losing the ability to carve out a solid chance.
Everything the gunners did was too wide, too short, too long or lacked understanding. The ball just couldn’t find a red and white shirt in the key areas and a result, it became a frustrating spectacle.
Nine changes still left Arsenal with a decent looking side, comprised of strength and depth and one that should have managed to sneak one goal past a side that lost many of its key assets due to death threats from its own fans.
Emery will have been reminded this evening that there is more to do, something he was already aware of but which was endorsed by the booing fans, dissatisfied by their teams ability to make light work of Sporting Lisbon.
Arsenal were not themselves and although they didn’t exactly play badly, they didn’t cover themselves in glory either. This is the type of thing that happens with multiple ambitions, you end up with a team grinding out a result, rather than suffocating the opposition by showing creativity and expectations at the Emirates do not allow for that.
Normally, by Christmas, Arsenal are out of contention for everything, so the fact that they have yet to exit a competition is unusual but the “we’ve got our Arsenal back” brigade, are not in the mood to appreciate this type of positive thinking.
The game had looked as if it could be reasonably energetic and entertaining affair, until the point where Danny Welbeck suffered an horrific ankle injury. It’s now a case of, if he will ever be seen in an Arsenal shirt again because of his contract issues.
Welbeck has experienced more lows than highs in his Arsenal career, since his move from Manchester United in 2014. The player has been absent for 577 days with knee, hip and groin injuries. This latest setback will cost him the remainder of the season and raise questions over his future, which had indicated a move across London to Crystal Palace.
The injury came out of a nothing situation, as Welbeck tried desperately to turn this stalemate into something else, struggling to connect with Stephan Lichtsteiner’s cross from the right around the 20 minute mark.The striker made contact, winning the battle with a Sporting defender but he seemed to get his studs firmly stuck in the turf and landed heavily.
I’m no Doctor but in that moment, it was evident that his ankle that had taken the brunt of the impact. It was clear with the pictures emerging toward the end of the game that Welbeck and his leg went one way but his foot and ankle went another. I’d be completely amazed if the sound of a crack wasn’t heard half a mile away from the Emirates.
The players looked on, realising that something substantial had occurred and the striker was down for a good 5 minutes until he left the field on a stretcher. Around the ground no one really understood the extent of what was unfolding until the player was given oxygen, this took it to another level and memories of Aaron Ramsey’s shocking injury at Stoke came flooding back. No doubt the Welshman suddenly found himself with a host of unwanted recollections that he had successfully suppressed.
Welbeck was taken from the field with the sound of the crowds appreciation ringing in his ears, they called his name like a fallen warrior, his evening and season over.
That moment cast a shadow over the game and Arsenal lost momentum and focus in the remainder of the first half. The second saw pockets of promise but nothing that made you leap out of your seat and after another half an hour, I resigned myself to the fact that, barring a miracle, Arsenal would fail to find their shooting boots and get the goal that the fans were starting to demand.
Aubamayang was the one most likely to change that with an instinctive shot which grazed the woodwork and a decent chance that saw him hauled down just outside the area and saw Jérémy Mathieu sent off.
Arsenal lost a second player to injury, when Lichtsteiner pulled up abruptly with a hamstring injury but he walked off suggesting that the damage was minor rather than major.
So the gunners are through but in need of a performance to silence the fans and put the smiles back on their faces. Rotation is part of the modern game but it is wasted on the paying public on a relatively cold evening with little to cheer.
For Emery, the honeymoon is well and truly over. The fans may be slightly more forgiving if he delivers champions league football next season or produces a cup of some discription. For a section of supporters, the expectations of a handful of wonderful performances appear to have gone through the stratosphere completely extinguishing any sense of reality. This is the beginning of something. An unfinished symphony or a few brush strokes into a work of art, a stained glass window missing one or two pieces or a novel that requires an ending. The sooner some realise this the better.