Napoli 2 Arsenal 0: The Gunners Drop to Second After Abject Performance
San Paolo (Champions League)
Napoli: Higuain (74′), Callejon (90′)
The stage was set for the final set of fixtures in everybody’s favorite Group of Death as three teams had everything to play as qualification beckoned to two sides that deserved it. Arsenal, the team with the best away record in the group, locked horns against Napoli, the team with the best home record.
Arsene Wenger made two changes from the side that shared the spoils with Everton as Tomas Rosicky and Mathieu Flamini, two inspired substitute in the weekend, returned to the starting XI with Jack Wilshere and Aaron Ramsey making way.
Napoli began the game with more urgency and Gonzalo Higuain was flagged offside twice in the space of five minutes or so. The Arsenal defense was tore open with a diagonal ball for Goran Pandev as he beat Per Mertesacker for pace but his shot was easy pickings for Wojciech Szczesny.
Mesut Ozil lost the ball in midfield allowing Pablo Armero to surge forward with the ball. The Colombian fullback sent a through ball to Higuain but Mertesacker, once again, used his long legs to great effect as he anticipated the ball. Arsenal hit Napoli on the break with Ozil teeing up Flamini who in turn located Olivier Giroud on his left. The French striker blasted a goal-bound shot but Rafael made a good save.
Napoli continued to ask questions of the Gunners’ defense with Dzemaili blasting the ball over. The defense was split open with Christian Maggio on the clear but he lobbed the ball over Szczesny and the goal post, wasting another chance for the hosts. Laurent Koscielny showed his defensive prowess but anticipating the ball before launching an attack but he was stopped in his tracks.
Mikel Arteta found Flamini that waltzed with the ball before getting into a well-baked Napoli sandwich of two defenders. Everyone thought it was a foul as the Flamster was clearly impeded but the ref had other ideas, much to the disgust of the Arsenal players. Late in the first half, Higuain found himself on the clear but he launched his shot into orbit.
Arsenal came out of their shells a bit in the second half with Carl Jenkinson teeing up Ozil but the German’s shot was wide off the mark. The Gunners then worked hard to launch a smooth attacking play but when the ball found itself in Jenkinson’s path, the young fullback was clueless on what to do with it and another good attacking move was thwarted.
Lorenzo Insigne flicked a brilliant ball to Armero that managed to find his way past Jenkinson before getting one-on-one with Szczesny but his weak shot was saved by the Polish goalie. Insigne continued to threaten the Gunners from the left and he threaded a neat ball to Armero that sent a cross towards Dries Martens. The Belgian blasted a shot that was blocked by Kieran Gibbs.
Rosicky and Arteta worked in tandem to create a chance for Giroud but he was offside. With the ref’s whistle already blown, Giroud continued to dally on the ball and got a yellow card for his stupidity. The manager then brought on Ramsey for the ineffectual Santi Cazorla.
Jose Callejon worked his way into the box before dinking the ball for Higuain but the Argentine’s shot from an acute angle went over. Marten lofted the ball into Arsenal’s danger area and it was punched to safety by Szczesny, when the ball found its way into Arsenal’s box again, Szczesny commanded his area with another good save.
Ramsey noticed Giroud in front of him before attempting to lob the ball over the top but the French striker wasn’t in the same wavelength with his Welsh teammate. With Napoli pressing hard for that all-important goal, it finally arrived when Armero found Higuain that exchanged passes with Callejon before firing a left-footed volley that sailed past Szczesny.
Wenger replaced Rosicky with Nacho Monreal to offer some protection on the left hand side but Arsenal’s woes were compounded when Arteta earned himself an early bath for a silly bookable offence when he was already walking with a tight rope. That red card took the wind off Arsenal’s sails and it was going to be a big struggle from there onwards.
Armero darted forward with the ball and drilled an inviting cross into the heart of Arsenal’s area but no Napoli player capitalized on the chance. Koscielny almost deflected Maggio’s effort into his goal but Szczesny was alert to make a good save. Monreal made a foray forward and crossed it to Giroud but the Frenchman attempt on goal was laughable.
Right at the death, Insigne lofted the ball over the defense and Mertesacker was caught in No Man’s Land as Callejon reacted first to chip the ball over Szczesny to make his two.
At that point, I feared for the worst but fortunately, Arsenal had time on their side as the ref ended the proceedings after the restart. 12 points is usually more than enough to win a Champions League group but Napoli are going to plunge into the depths of Europa League football despite winning four games in this group.
In the other encounter, Dortmund’s late win ensured that they had done enough to end as group winners which ultimately means that Arsenal could face the likes of Barcelona, Real Madrid or the defending champions, Bayern Munich.
The Gunners needed a draw to top this group but they were a goal away from playing Thursday night football.
They should get ready to face the music when the results of the draws come out on Friday.
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