Match Report: Napoli 2 – 0 Arsenal

Champions League:  11th December 2013
By Zedie

JenksTonight saw Arsenal move onto the second stage of a quartet of huge challenges leading up to end of 2013 and hopefully, come through unscathed.  Given all of the outcomes facing us, only one thing was certain; lose by 3 goals or more and au revoir to the Champions League for this year.

A slightly surprising line up was confirmed just before the game, in that many Gooners expected a few more rested. Only Ramsey and Wilshire were the noticeable absentees from the eleven that started the Everton game.

The first glaring observation to be made, was our start to the match.  Arsenal got stuck straight into the game, with good closing down, movement and generally a competent passing display.  It was a start any follower of the Arsenal would be much more familiar with than the lumbering, geriatric kick off versus Everton.  Our play was matched by a Napoli side that knew they were 90 minutes away from being a statistic and who really needed to make themselves heroes in front of their infamous home mob.

Arsenal are widely known for playing the beautiful game, but the first half was anything but.  If I had to sum it up in one word, ‘Industrial’ would be my choice.  We were so far removed from our Jack Sparrow like swagger, yet did exactly what we needed to do for that moment in time.  Defend well, stay organised, frustrate, break Napoli’s momentum.  The tactics clearly screamed efficiency over flamboyance and it worked.  Bar a few half chances, we held them at arms length without ever really looking threatened.

The 24th minute saw neat play ending at Flamini’s feet, who pinged a first time ball across the goal, into Olivier Giroud’s path.  Giroud controlled and unleashed a fierce shot that the keeper could only parry out to Ozil, who could only manage a slap stick swing and miss at the ball from the edge of the box.

One of the few highlights of the half was seeing Laurent Koscielny executing 2 consecutive panenkas in his own box, majestically striding out of our final third with ball at his feet, head on swivel, hitting the thrusters and taking off down the pitch after a cheeky one two.  His run was only halted by a primitive barge, earning the culprit a yellow card.

Wojciech Szczesny did get bored right at the very end of the first half and decided to try and lob the on rushing Gonzalo Higuain. after receiving an innocuous back pass.  Fortunately, the ball cannoned off Higuain and out for a goal kick.   Much has been said about Szczesny’s confidence in between the sticks, but on more than 1 occasion this season, his confidence has nearly cost us big time.  I suppose its a double edged sword, as its also given him the belief to make some impressive performances, but he needs to learn when to keep it simple and when its safe to showboat.  I’m sure Artur Boruc can explain this on international duty.

Half time came, Arsenal fans were happy, neutral fans had definitely switched to the recording of Corrie.

The second half started much the same as the first, with a pretty even contest being waged in the centre of the park.  However, the 57th minute saw the introduction of Lorenzo Insigne for the ineffectual Goran Pandev, a move that would turn out to be quite decisive for the Neapolitans.  Within a minute, we saw the first proper shots across the Arsenal bow.  Pablo Armero was fed the ball down our left channel and with Rosicky not able to match the run, he strode into our box with enough space to get a guilt edged chance on target.  Lucky then, that his candyfloss shot lolled gently into Szczesny’s arms.

It should have been the wake up call for Arsenal to tighten up and impose themselves more onto the game, but the crowd reaction, already stoked by the introduction of the local boy in Insigne, spurred Napoli on like, well…..like they were in danger of getting knocked out of the cup.  The pressure was duly cranked and Arsenal began making silly errors under pressure.  The excellent Jose Callejon came inches away from converting after just missing a cross from deep, having ghosted in between Mertesacker and Koscielny on 60 minutes.

The talismanic Aaron Ramsey came on for the ineffective Santi Cazorla in the 66th minute to tighten up the right hand side.  The waves of pressure continued, as Callejon caused problems from all areas in our final third and Gonzalo Higuain threatening.  It was easy to predict when Napoli did score in the 73rd minute.  Armero’s ball in from the left was cushioned back to the lurking Callejon by Higuain, who returned the pass to the one time Arsenal target.  Higuain turned Mertesacker expertly on the edge of the area and sent a low shot past Szczesny, an excellent trademark finish.

While the crowd willed them on, Arsenal were safe in the knowledge that the current score line would not stop us from going through, with the 1-1 all score line between Marseille and Dortmund ensuring this.

It wasn’t time to panic just yet, so Arsenal kicked off from the centre circle knowing the objective of staying calm and keeping Napoli frustrated was still on the chalkboard.  Nacho Monreal was introduced to the fold in the 74th minute for Thomas Rosicky, to plug any leaks in the defensive mind set of the team.

The hatches were securely fastened until Mikel Arteta reached his leg around Callejon to poke the ball away, only for the Napoli player to feel the contact he needed to hit the deck and give the referee a decision to make.  The decision was pretty swift, Arteta’s second yellow card on 76 minutes was added to his first on 63 minutes, to queue squeaks from many bums across Gooner Kingdom.  You’d be surprised to see a sending off like that in the Premier League, but in European competition, anyone that has ever watched a tie should know that you try your hardest not to make contact, especially on occasions that don’t absolutely, positively demand it.

The game seemed to settle down after the goal, with Napoli having the 12 points they needed, while Dortmund were still stuck on 10 points and 3rd place.  However, you could hear the change in the crowd in the 87th minute, when a hush fell over the stadium as news filtered in that Dortmund had got their 2nd goal to take them top of the group, with Arsenal 2nd and Napoli doomed to play Thursday night football versus the likes of Spurs.

Sensing that the drama had ebbed out of the tie, Arsenal took it upon themselves to spice things back up in the 93rd minute, when substitute Lorenzo Insigne played a wonderful ball over the top of Per Mertesacker’s head.  Jose Callejon timed his run well enough to leave Per for dead and deftly lob a hapless Szczesny to make it 2-0 on the night and 1 magical goal required to get through to the promised land.

Mere moments later, fulltime whistle blew on a night where Arsenal were left two goals to the bad and a fourteenth consecutive group stage qualification to the good.

What next?  A trip away to a fully rested Manchester City first eleven on Saturday, followed by having to let those scabby old farts Chelsea tread on the hallowed ground that is the Emirates.

After this, we should find out who we play out of Atletico Madrid , Bayern Munich, Barcelona, Real Madrid or Paris St Germain in the next round of the Champions League.

Pretty routine I’d say………..

 

Match Ratings

Szczesny – 7 – Generally, he played well, not much he could have done about either goal.  However, he gave everyone, himself included, a timely reminder that there is a fine line between confidence an d recklessness.

Jenkinson – 7 – Again, he was a big worry quality wise for some before the match, but played relatively well for long periods of the game. Armaro didn’t make attacking easy for him.

Mertesacker – 6 – Not his best night, turned expertly by Higuain for the first, his obvious lack of pace was exposed for the second.  Can and has done much better this season.

Koscielny – 7 – Generally, he played very well, he was one of, if not the best Arsenal player on the pitch today.  Made 1 mistake under pressure, but recovered well.

Gibbs – 6 – Defended well, his side of the pitch was generally quieter defensively.  Didn’t do enough to pose the attacking threat he can.

Flamini – 7 – Organised well, seemed to be one of the few willing midfield runners.  He tried to make things happen at the sharp end, but to no avail.

Arteta – 5 – He needed to be one of the leaders on the pitch today, but got himself sent off for two challenges that I believe didn’t need to be made in those areas.  Put a lot of pressure onto his team mates needlessly.

Cazorla – 6(off 66th minute) Its a long road back to the form he has shown in the past and today is evidence he still hasn’t arrived there yet.

Ozil – 7 – Not as potent as normal, but made a good account of himself.  Played a few great balls that a pacier striker would have eaten up.  Missed a glorious chance to strike on goal with a miskick.

Rosicky – 6 (off 74th min)– Tried to impose his usual game offensively, but was not sharp enough.  Not his best night.

Giroud – 6 – Worked tirelessly for the cause, held up the ball well, but it seemed as if he was too disjointed from the midfield. Hardly a shot in anger all night.

Subs

Ramsey – (on 66th min) – Wasn’t able to affect the game too much, worked hard, but opportunities to get into the business end were cut short after the sending off.

Monreal – (on 74th min) – Put on to shore up the defence, didn’t have much time affect the game too much when we were down to 10 men.

 

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