Napoli v Arsenal
UEFA Champions League
Stadio San Paolo
Kick off: December 11, 2013 7:45 PM BST
Before tonight’s game kicked off, I think a lot of fans were probably taking this game for granted. The fact that we only needed a draw to top the group, and that Napoli had to beat us by three goals (as well as Dortmund winning in Marseille) to knock us out, meant that Gooners felt that topping the group was a given. Many were calling for a side full of changes to be fielded, with the likes of Akpom and Gnabry being suggested.
The game started out very sloppily, with both teams playing like Pulis’ Stoke team, hoofing the ball from end to end, and playing keepy uppies in the middle of the park. Both Higuain and Giroud were given offside several times in the opening fifteen minutes, but despite the broken up nature of the play no one was able to settle the game down.
Despite neither team looking particularly threatening, it was Napoli that were creating the better chances. Mertesacker and Kosicelny looked to be having another great game though, their partnership limiting Napoli to half chances.
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With the defence doing it’s job at the back, Arsenal then went up the other end creating arguably the best chance of the half. Flamini laid an Özil ball off to Giroud with a lovely first time pass, but the French front man blasted it straight at the Napoli keeper, despite having plenty of time to place his shot, or even pick out Flamini who had carried on his run. The rebound fell nicely for Özil at the edge of the box, but he miskicked the ball horribly and the chance was gone.
Napoli were committing a number of fouls, both of the niggling and tactical variety. There were several which seemed like they should certainly have been yellow cards, but the referee seemed very hesitant to reach for his pocket. When this did eventually change, he showed the first card to Mertens, pointing out that the Dutch midfielder had totted up a number of fouls. Mertens protested that the referee had blamed the wrong man, and he may have had a point, as it seemed that he had been blamed for a couple of Behrahmi’s fouls as well.
Szczesny has been having a superb season so far, and many have claimed that this was in part down to the fact that he had eradicated the over confidence that was in his game in previous years. He made a couple of rash decisions tonight though, first charging out to a relatively harmless ball that he had no chance of winning; thankfully Maggio’s lob drifted over. Then attempting a cheeky and needless chip over the head of Higuain, which failed to get the required height, the Argentine’s header going just wide.
Despite some tense moments, Arsenal went into half time at 0-0. Knowing that a point was enough to top the group, this was not a bad result, but you had to know that Napoli would come out stronger in the second half.
The second half started similarly to the first, both teams struggling for possession, and playing some scrappy football. It soon calmed down a bit though, both sides enjoying spells on the ball, despite good pressing.
There was a moment of baited breath when Armero charged forward from the right back position, and got in behind Jenkinson. He looked almost certain to score as he bore down on goal, but he seemed caught in two minds, and his eventual tame shot was straight at Szczesny.
Napoli were starting to put a little bit of pressure on, and the frustration was showing on some of the Arsenal players faces. Arteta lashed out after falling to the floor, and was deservedly shown Arsenal’s first yellow card of the night. He had been showing his experience in the first half, drawing fouls from the Napoli midfield, this seemed to abandon him a little in the second forty five.
Moments later Armero (who had been good for the Italians all night) put in a good cross to Higuian. The Argentine striker played a one two with Callejon, before turning Mertesacker skilfully, and lashing a shot past a helpless Szczesny.
Arsenal’s misery was then compounded when Arteta saw red after foolishly committing a senseless foul. The foul itself was a very soft yellow, and there were at least half a dozen worse fouls committed by Napoli in the first half that escaped a card. The fact that Arteta made the challenge at all however, gave the referee a decision to make, and was a really poor decision by the Arsenal captain.
The game seemed to die off a little after that, both teams seemingly content to sit back and play out the remainder of the game as it stood. Perhaps the news that Dortmund were drawing with Marseille meant that both teams felt that this result was an acceptable one, but relying on results in other games when your future is in your own hands is a risky strategy.
It seemed like the perfect situation to bring Walcott on, giving us the opportunity to sit back and soak up the Napoli pressure while utilising Theo’s pace to hit them on the break, and perhaps snatch back the draw we needed to top the group. Clearly Wenger didn’t share my sentiments though, and Walcott remained on the bench.
In the dying minutes an announcement came through that Dortmund had taken the lead, which should really have changed the complexion of our game; but it didn’t seem to. Arsenal seemed to have no intention of grabbing the goal that would see them top, and Napoli seemed afraid to commit despite Arsenal only having ten men.
A second Napoli goal did eventually come however, in the ninety second minute. Insigne played superb ball over our defence, and Callejon latched onto it, gracefully lobbing the ball over the head of Szczesny and into the open net.
It wasn’t enough to see Napoli through, but Dortmund’s win in Marseille meant that Arsenal were knocked from the top spot. This means the draw for the next round is going to be extremely tricky, with not a single one of the five teams available to us being one I would want to face on their day. It’s a bitter sweet night for Arsenal fans, qualification achieved, but there was a noticeable lack of effort from the players tonight as we threw away top spot.
on the result…
I felt in the first half we controlled the game well and, in the second half, Napoli were the better team. They always looked dangerous and won the game 2-0 – they deserved it. When we were down to 10 men and 1-0 down, the doubt crept in a bit, and it was a difficult moment. But we managed to keep it to 1-0 until the last minute of the game. It just shows you that this group had three very good teams, who all made 12 points and goal difference played a big part. It was always going to be like that when Marseille took no points, one team was unfortunately going to suffer.
on the potential of tough draws…
Of course to finish second makes the potential draw more difficult, in the last four or five years we have had very difficult draws, so maybe this time we will be more lucky. But if you look at the teams who are potentially there, at least we know we will have a difficult draw. On the other hand, we have now qualified for a 14th consecutive year for the last 16 and maybe number 14 will bring us a bit of luck.
on using the draw as an inspiration…
Yes, but for now we have a little breather to focus on the league. We have a very difficult game on Saturday morning. We will see what comes out of the draw and will assess that in February because a lot can change on both sides, on us and the team we play against. So we need to put that to the back of our minds now and focus on the Premier League.
on preparations for the game…
We prepared well and were concentrated but we were a bit in between ‘do we attack or do we defend’. It is difficult to cope with that problem. In the second half, I felt that our legs went a little bit and Napoli were sharper physically than us. Saturday was on our mind, we knew to come to Naples would be difficult. We have done our job now we will give absolutely everything on Saturday morning.
on not finishing top…
That is the frustration because you feel there was room to do better but it could have been worse as well tonight.
Here are some of the top tweets from today’s game:
“Özil tried to tackle haha”
“We’re frustrating them. Arteta is playing a very clever game in the middle. Experience shining through.”
” How good a player is Kos? Incredible”
How many tackles have Napoli done like that.
Like I said, absolute shocker of a ref this one.”
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