Arsenal drew 2-2 with Sporting Lisbon in their Europa League last-16 first leg tie; Man Utd were 4-1 winners against Real Betis; Plus: How do West Ham recreate their Europa Conference League form in the Premier League after 2-0 win at AEK Larnaca?
Return of Jesus can spark Arsenal attack
The long-awaited return of Gabriel Jesus will arrive at a crucial time for Mikel Arteta and Arsenal.
“We lacked a bit of that final touch but we are missing four key attackers so we will take the draw,” said Arteta after their 2-2 draw with Sporting.
It would have been tempting to have included Jesus in the squad for their Europa League first leg after the striker returned to training this week.
But Arsenal have not been rushing him back, knowing there is enough of the season left for him to make a crucial impact, even in the second leg of this tie.
Gabriel Martinelli was deployed up front in Jesus and Eddie Nketiah’s absence. Leandro Trossard is also sidelined which left Emile Smith Rowe as the only ‘senior’ forward among the substitutes.
Arsenal dominated possession throughout although Sporting created more clear-cut chances. The visitors ran out of ideas in the last 20 minutes and had little to call upon from the bench.
Jesus can provide a timely lift with 12 huge Premier League fixtures and a rematch with Sporting to go.
Man Utd remind Europe how far they’ve come under Ten Hag
The old adage is that playing a side after a defeat is like facing a wounded animal, but facing Manchester United after a poor loss over the last few seasons has been an invitation to inflict more misery.
There was no expectation of a repeat performance against Real Betis even after United’s worst ever defeat against Liverpool on Sunday, which underlines yet again what a sterling job Erik ten Hag is doing in Manchester.
He knows his side can bounce back. They know. Betis are no mugs either, holding Real Madrid – remember, the ones who blew away the same Liverpool side who just trounced Man Utd – to a goalless draw at the weekend and have threatened a late surge into the Champions League places in LaLiga.
But once United got over a bump of their own making, dealing with the nerves that Ayoze Perez’s shock equaliser sent through them before half-time, they swatted their visitors away like a fly.
That 4-1 flattered Betis more than their hosts says a lot about the strength of character within the squad Ten Hag has moulded. And no-one could put it better than the manager after the game.
“It’s always how a team reacts after a setback – you see it once again, this is not the first time this season,” he told BT Sport. “Already it’s been five or six times, we can reset and bounce back. This team has character.”
This team certainly does have character. And with the Premier League title realistically out of reach, it could easily be enough to lift silverware in this competition at least.
How do West Ham recreate their winning ECL form in the Premier League?
It’s now nine games unbeaten in European competition for West Ham – no mean feat, even if some may say ‘it’s only the Europa Conference League’.
Larnaca proved – with their 15 shots and 14 corners among other stats – that even a team that has never reached the last 16 of any European competition before can test a famous Premier League outfit.
But the Hammers’ vast superiority at both ends won the day, even if manager David Moyes was “disappointed” with the performance.
And he has good reason to feel that way. West Ham huffed and puffed at times and only in the final 15 minutes of the first half did they display the glimpses of quality they have shown for the last two years.
But an away win in Europe is an away win in Europe. West Ham will be pleased to have regular starting striker Michail Antonio back in the XI and scoring two sublime goals – his first double in 19 months. They also rode the waves of Larnaca pressure with composure and calmness for the most part, while Maxwell Cornet got some vital match minutes under his belt.
They now face a vital Premier League fixture against Aston Villa this weekend. While we cannot expect miracles in just a few days, the victory in Cyprus will have given them a much-needed boost in confidence. It’s amazing how even a scrappy win can help when you most need it.
West Ham must harness the positives to take into their next few fixtures before the international break, especially domestically. Those games could end up defining the Hammers’ destiny come May 28.