It’s not just our top spot in the Premiership that is under huge pressure during the current period – it’s also our final position in the Champions’ League Group Stage that will be settled during “The Fortnight of The Living Dead”. We have a rather comfortable position but we shouldn’t underestimate our next opponents…
The supporters of the Italian outfit will probably scream: “Mamma mia!” whenever an own goal scored by Juan Zuniga during the end of the match against Borussia Dortmund springs to their minds. It was a goal conceded at 2:0 for Napoli while Borussia had 10 men on the pitch due to Roman Weidenfeller’s red card. They will curse their luck even more when they remember Callejon’s shot that hit the post in Dortmund at 1:0 for the Germans and Higuain’s chances that he had missed before Borussia Dortmund doubled their lead.
Why? Because Zuniga’s own goal in the first match of the group might turn out to be a fatal one for Napoli. That goal is the difference in the head-to-head between Borussia and Napoli. That’s the goal that had put Napoli in a very difficult position before the last match in the Group Stage – if Borussia Dortmund win at Marseille (and – given the quality of the German side and the fact that Marseille have “owed” Borussia one since that victory in the last match of the Group Stage in 2011-12 – it’s likely to happen), Napoli have to beat us with a three-goal-margin to qualify for the First Knockout Stage. And, we have conceded three goals only once this season (against Aston Villa in the opening match in the Premiership).
Rafa Benitez has been a very successful manager in cup-competitions, especially in Europe. He has won the UEFA Cup with Valencia, Champions’ League with Liverpool and Europa League with Chelsea respectively. His Liverpool reached the Champions’ League Final once and were difficult opponents for everyone. His cameo with Inter was far from successful but he has managed to win the Club World Championship with Nerazzuri as well. It should be noted that his Liverpool came back after being three-goals-down against AC Milan in the Champions’ League Final 2005.
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Benitez was busy in the summer transfer window as he reshaped the Italian side from the bottom to the top. He signed Pepe Reina – who had been a first-choice goalkeeper at Liverpool for years before Benitez left Anfield – on loan while his other signings were mostly funded from the sale of super-star striker Edinson Cavani to PSG. And, Benitez did most of his shopping at Santiago Bernabeu – he got himself a central defender (Raul Albiol), an attacking midfielder (Jose Callejon) and a deadly striker (Gonzalo Higuain).
Napoli have interesting full-backs. Christian Maggio and Pablo Armero have been connected with Arsenal. Those who are more into Serie A suggest that Maggio has suffered this season due to Benitez’s switch from 3-4-1-2 to 4-2-3-1 as it seems that the Italian international right full-back prefers a wing-back role to the full-back one. Arsenal fans will remember Armero from the Champions’ League Play-Off in 2011-12 when Arsenal hosted Udinese. The Colombian was a real menace in that match and only a great performance from Wojciech Szczesny saved us. Miguel Britos and Raul Albiol are in the central defence. Given that Napoli tend to play attacking football, the two of them haven’t had the best season so far.
In the midfield, there is another player that has been connected with Arsenal. Gokhan Inler is a Swiss defensive midfielder. He is a very good passer and he can send a dangerous shot from distance as well. His compatriot Valon Behrami has experienced Premiership football as well. He is a versatile player that has been used as a right full-back, right winger and central midfielder during his career with Lazio, West Ham and Napoli. He is not exactly a cold-blooded guy and that might be used by our players.
Napoli have their best weapons up front. Even if Marek Hamšik is injured, that doesn’t mean they don’t have players that can cause us troubles. Goran Pandev would have had a much better career if only his talent had been taken in account. His technique and dribbling were difficult to handle for top defenders like Lillian Thuram and Fabio Cannavaro in the past and he scored two goals last weekend against Udinese, so our players should pay attention to his skills. Lorenzo Insigne has scored two goals in this Champions’ League campaign – a wonderful free-kick against Borussia Dortmund in the first match and a left-footed strike at Signal Iduna Park. The little Italian (1,63 m) tends to drift inside from the left. Jose Callejon will operate on the other flank. He has been in deadly form in Serie A – he has scored seven goals in fifteen matches – but he hasn’t created a single goal for his team-mates yet.
Finally, Gonzalo Higuain. He didn’t play in the first match when we won 2:0. We know pretty much everything about him and his family thanks to the summer transfer saga that lasted four months. You might have read what Higuain’s dad, brother and a person that was suspected to be both Higuain’s father AND brother at the same time think about the possible transfer to Arsenal. In the end, Napoli used a large chunk of their transfer budget boosted with the sale of Cavani to PSG to fill their gap in the attack and paid a lot more than we would of for the prolific Argentinian. Higuain has been superb for Napoli so far – he has reached 10 goals in all competitions already and has created six more for his team-mates. He knows where the goal is and our central defenders will have to keep their great form going against the hitman.
When it comes to our team, Wojciech Szczesny should take his place between the sticks. He should pay special attention to the long shots that Napoli are likely to attempt. Carl Jenkinson will play against Napoli and Manchester City due to Sagna’s injury and we need Carl at his best in both fixtures. Wenger might opt for Nacho Monreal who has better defensive abilities than Gibbs in order to exclude Callejon from the game and keep the Englishman fresh for the clash against Manchester City. Both full-backs will need proper support from our wide midfielders/wingers. Mertesacker and Koscielny will take their places at central defence unless Wenger decides to rotate a bit and give Koscielny some rest before the tough fixture against Sergio Agüero on Saturday. In that case, Vermaelen will start next to Mertesacker.
As always, the hardest part of the team to pick is our midfield. In the first match, Wenger used both Flamini and Arteta in the double-pivot role but it seems unlikey we will go with that combination again. Flamini adds aggression while Arteta adds elegance and more accurate passing. Jack Wilshere will probably start next to Flamini/Arteta given that Ramsey needs a short break. On the right wing, Wenger might go with Rosicky, Walcott or Wilshere (if Arteta and Flamini start together or Ramsey takes his place in central midfield). Given that Napoli will throw everything at us from the very start, Walcott’s inclusion in the starting eleven might be the right move as the hosts will leave him a lot of space for counter-attacks. On the left wing, Santi Cazorla might want to redeem himself for the below-par performance against Everton. Mesut Özil will probably start behind Olivier Giroud – the two of them were on the score-sheet in the reverse fixture when Arsenal won 2:0.
Despite the fact we have a three-point-lead, we mustn’t be complacent tomorrow. We have to be 100 % focused on the Italians tomorrow and avoid other thoughts regarding Manchester City. There is a myth that states 2:0 is the most dangerous lead in football. I say it’s just a myth but in our case, it might give us a sense of false safety as our opponents have to score three goals without reply to leapfrog us on the mini-table consisted of us, Borussia Dortmund and Napoli. The Italians will probably try to do the same thing to us as we did to them in the reverse fixture – they will attack from the very beginning in order to score an early goal and that’s a storm we’ll have to weather. A draw would secure us a top-spot and a three-goal-defeat would probably knock us out of the competition unless Marseille do something against Borussia Dortmund.
Conclusion: No complacency allowed. One point will secure us top spot and the chance of an easier draw for the First Knockout Stage…So let’s pick it!