In-form Arsenal Eyeing Europa Knockout Spot

Danny Wellbeck celebrating his winning goal for Arsenal in Lisbon

Unai Emery’s Arsenal head into Thursday’s clash with Sporting Lisbon at the Emirates bidding for a place in the Europa League knockout stage, buoyed by an impressive display in their draw against Premier League title hopefuls Liverpool.

The Gunners are top of Group E having won all three of their matches so far, and have looked revitalised in the early stages of the post-Arsene Wenger era.

A second straight victory over Portuguese giants Sporting would extend their unbeaten run to 15 matches in all competitions.

Back-to-back defeats by Manchester City and Chelsea at the start of the campaign had left some onlookers questioning whether Arsenal could compete with stronger opposition, but close-season signing Bernd Leno said Saturday’s performance had proved a point.

“I think we saw that we can play our way against big teams,” the German goalkeeper told the club’s website.

“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.”

The 2006 Champions League runners-up failed to qualify for Europe’s top competition in each of Wenger’s last two seasons at the helm, but are now in contention to end that run on two fronts.

Leno thinks that Emery’s influence has been key to changing the mood around the Emirates Stadium.

“The coach gives us a lot of confidence to play like this,” he added.

“I can’t compare it because last year I was not here but I think (Emery) changed some things –- of course, the way we play from behind but also to play very aggressive, the defence is getting better, controlled.

“Tactically, it is one step better than at the beginning of the season because it needs time and it also needs time now in the next weeks.

“If we work like this and play like this, we could have a great season.”

Chelsea will also book a ticket for the last 32 with victory over BATE Borisov in Belarus, after seeing Alvaro Morata make it five goals in six games in their win over Crystal Palace at the weekend.

Maurizio Sarri’s side are unbeaten since a 2-0 Community Shield loss to Man City in August, and have scored 18 goals over their last six outings. They top Group L with nine points and will qualify for the last 32 with a win.

“I have started scoring again for two weeks and now I am happy, the team plays good and I don’t need to think about scoring more goals than other players,” Morata told Chelsea’s website, after breaking a terrible run of form that saw him net just four times in his previous 31 matches.

Elsewhere on Thursday, record five-time winners Sevilla travel to Turkish side Akhisar Genclik Spor looking to strengthen their grip on top spot of Group J, while Gennaro Gattuso’s AC Milan travel to Spain hoping to avenge their defeat by Real Betis two weeks ago.