What can Arsenal expect from Sporting CP?
Sporting CP take on Arsenal in the Europa League this afternoon - but what can the London side expect from their Lisbon counterparts?
It was a summer of chaos that was widely reported. Sporting went through as close to a full-blown crisis as you can feasibly imagine for a reputable European club. Slipping out of the Champions League places at the hands of your arch-rivals Benfica on the very final day of the season must have been a truly difficult pill to swallow, and some 'fans' used their anger and frustration to exercise inexcusable violence.
Storming training in the days after the costly defeat to Maritimo that ultimately pushed Sporting into third in the table, a group of thuggish supporters attacked their own players and coaching staff in a bid to show their fury. A despicable act which put star striker Bas Dost in hospital and made him miss the Portuguese Cup final tie with Aves. Ultimately, Sporting then lost that match too, bringing to an end a season to forget for the Sporting faithful.
But that wasn't the end of it. With controversial club president Bruno de Carvalho still at the healm, several players - eight in total - chose to use their right to unilaterally terminate their contracts as a result of feeling unsafe in their workplace, several vowing only to come back if Carvalho left.
With the president persisting, not allowing himself to be blackmailed into leaving, some of the club's star players in Gelson Martins, William Carvalho, Rui Patricio, Bruno Fernandes and Bas Dost opted to terminate their contracts, leaving them free to push for a move elsewhere. Willam Carvalho subsequently moved to Real Betis, Gelson to Atletico Madrid, and Patricio to Wolverhampton, three transfers which dismantled the very core of the side.
Another couple of young talents also decided to take the opportunity to move on, with exciting prospect Raphael Leão opting to join French outfit Lille on a free transfer, who are building quite the Portuguese contingent, and Daniel Podence moving to Olympiakos.
Another element of the turmoil was the fact that highly experienced manager Jorge Jesus had also departed the club to join Saudi Arabian side Al-Hilal, leaving Sporting not only without a couple of their most senior players, but also without a coach.
And to add even further to the developing crisis in a quite comical way, Jesus' replacement Siniša Mihajlović, handpicked by Bruno de Carvalho himself in June of this year, was sacked as manager just nine days after his appointment, after President Carvalho was finally forced out of office and the new regime decided Mihajlovic was not the man they wanted. Instead, the safe but highly uninspiring appointment of Jose Peseiro as manager followed, and he remains Sporting coach, having been with the club for his second stint for three months now.
With this, there finally seemed to be a turning point. With Bruno de Carvalho gone and an experienced manager at the healm, Sporting fans had further reason to be optimistic when two of their most valuable players in Bruno Fernandes and Bas Dost re-signed for the club, backtracking on their decision to terminate their contracts once Bruno de Carvalho had gone.
What about now?
But this is still something of a transition period for one of Portugal's biggest football clubs. It's impossible to expect to be able to replace such valuable players as Portugal international goakeeper Rui Patricio, explosive winger Gelson Martins and composed midfielder William Carvalho straight away and continue to perform to as high a level as they have done in previous years.
Sporting did, however, bring back the legend that is Nani this summer, an excellent move to add some much-needed experience to a side seeking leadership. A man like Nani in the dressing room is vital, and his return is just definitely the highlight of the summer for Sporting fans.
But how are they performing the pitch? Well, Sporting currently sit 5th in the Portuguese Primeira Liga, lagging behind Benfica, Braga, Porto and Rio Ave, having already dropped eight points this campaign in just 7 fixtures. To be expected, some could say, after a turbulent summer, but those defeats at the hands of Portimonense - who claimed an incredible 4-2 victory over the Lisbon side after an outstanding display from Shoya Nakajima - and Braga will have been of great disappointment and frustration to fans, who are growing increasingly tired of the style of football Peseiro has been implementing at the club.
And you can understand it. Sporting most certainly haven't set the world alight this campaign, every victory earned so far this season by a narrow margin, failing to win by more than two goals at all this campaign. Not disastrous of course, but in a league where the big three are expected to dominate by a distance, it is a good indication of where Sporting are this year.
And while their tally of six points from six games in the Europa is impressive, having managed to overcome Qarabag in a 2-0 victory in Lisbon and Vorskla 2-1 in Ukraine only a couple of weeks ago, it could have been a very different story for the Portuguese outfit.
The clash with Vorskla, most notably, was as equally extraordinary as it was concerning. Having trailed 1-0 against the Ukrainians from minute 10 to minute 90, it looked as if Sporting were heading for a costly defeat that would certainly dampen their hopes of progression. However, Sporting dug deep and never gave up, Acuña first curling his shot into the far corner in the 91st minute, before Jovane Cabral managed to finish off a fast counterattacking move in the 94th minute, sealing the most unlikely of three points for the Portuguese outfit.
It was a very close call though. For virtually the whole game, Vorskla were set to jump into second in the group with three points, jumping ahead of Sporting on the head-to-head rule. But with that last-gasp double, Sporting now sit in second, level on points with Arsenal, 6 points clear of both Qarabag and Vorskla. Fortunate to say the least.
What can Arsenal expect?
But Sporting still post certain dangers to The Gunners. Having built up a real reputation of performing to a high standard against top opposition on the European stage, Sporting often get close to an upset without quite pulling it off.
In the last two editions of the Champions League, for example, Sporting have pushed some of Europe's finest to the limit, and only just came up short on several occasions. In the 2017-18 season, Sporting lost just 1-0 against Barcelona after an own goal by Coates was all that separated the sides, before then losing just 2-1 to Juventus - in Italy - after conceding a late goal having initially taken the lead. That same campaign, they also held Juventus to a 1-1 draw in Portugal, coming so close to earning all three points. Then, in the 2016-17 edition of the Champions League, they fell to yet another excruciatingly late, narrow 2-1 defeat, this time at the hands of Real Madrid - in Madrid - having not only held but led the Spanish giants up until the 89th minute. And then, again, only lost to Madrid in the reverse fixture 2-1 after an 87th Benzema goal.
Even in the Europa League last season, they only lost to eventual champions Atletico Madrid 2-1 on aggregate in the quarter final, having beaten them 1-0 in Lisbon.
So impressive, so close, yet not quite getting the job done on the European stage. In the Champions League particularly, having played so well and home toe to toe with some of the big boys in Europe football, they picked up just a single point in those five matches outlined above. In that sense, you would expect Arsenal to have just too much for Sporting, but they will be sure to show the desire, commitment and hard work required to make it as difficult for the English side as possible.
Who to watch out for:
Sporting have a few players that could cause Arsenal problems. Nani is an obvious one, but his excellent form deserves recognition. 4 goals and 4 assists indicates that the 31-year old is thriving back in Portugal.
Bruno Fernandes is another man that could make the difference for Sporting. His technical ability and trickery could cause Arsenal damage and, while he hasn't quite hit the heights he did last campaign, his five goals across all competitions already this season shows he is a potential outlet for Sporting.
Another man with the flair and creativity to cause issues for Sporting is Marcus Acuña. His flexibility has been in display this campaign too, used on the wing, as a full back and as a central midfielder at some point already this season. The Argentine is a joy to watch and can sometimes slip under the radar a little. Raphinha and Fredy Montero are two other players that could be of a goal threat for Sporting, with the latter having to fill in up top in the absence of Bas Dost.
Also keep an eye out for Jovane Cabral. Unlikely to start, but off the bench he's been fantastic so far in his Sporting career, already sitting on two Europa League goals having just played 23 minutes of football across two outings. A further goal and two assists in the Primeira Liga having played just 256 minutes of league football and two cup assists to his name, Cabral has bagged either a goal or assist every 62 minutes for Sporting this campaign, a quite exceptional record for a 20-year old who has only played the full 90 minutes of a game once all season.