Napoli 2 Arsenal 0: Three talking points as Gunners progress
Napoli 2 Arsenal 0: Three talking points as the Gunners reach the last 16 despite a loss in Naples
Arsenal have been accused of lacking steely backbone on trips away from The Emirates in the Champions League in recent seasons. But Arsene Wenger’s shrewd acquisition of Mathieu Flamini on a free transfer this summer has transformed their soft centre into a solid midfield foundation. In a squad packed full of cultured players like Mikel Arteta and Tomas Rosicky, Flamini provides much-needed bite and harasses opponents. The France international cut off the supply line to Gonzalo Higuain for the best part of 70 minutes, helped by Arteta and Rosicky, as Napoli resorted to attempted long balls over the Gunners defence. But Flamini brings more than tackling to the table, with the Frenchman regularly barking orders at his team-mates, constantly reorganising, and even bringing dynamism to their attack. In fact, that was Flamini’s biggest contribution in Naples. The midfielder twice timed a burst towards to Napoli’s area to near-perfection – a heavy touch and an unpunished block proving his undoing. He even managed to produce a Mesut Ozil-like pass to allow Olivier Giroud register his side’s only meaningful shot on target in the first half. When Areta was dismissed with 15 minutes remaining, Flamini dug deep to plug the gap left by the Arsenal skipper.
Koscielny-Mertesacker survive Naples test – just
It’s testament to the form of Laurent Koscielny and Per Mertesacker that club captain Thomas Vermaelen has barely got a look in this season. The San Paolo stadium pitch certainly didn’t serve to encourage Arsenal’s attractive football and the Gunners back four had to be alert to the occasional unfavourable bounce – and a world-class finisher in the shape of Higuain. Sharing the responsibility of marking former Arsenal target, Rafael Benitez’s side were forced to resort to a long-ball tactic to beat the Arsenal duo in the first half but were undone by a finely-tuned offside trap. The Germany international dealt with the aerial threat and Koscielny was alert to any low-hit crosses or moments of danger on the outskirts of Wojciech Szczesny’s area. When the French defender was finally out-witted by Callejon, Koscielny showed enough pace to recover his position. Napoli continued to probe as the former Real Madrid duo linked up around Szczesny’s area with increasing menace. And Callejon and Higuain did finally combine to fire Napoli into the lead and on the brink of the last 16. But perhaps most encouraging for Wenger ahead of Saturday’s trip to Manchester City was the manner of Arsenal’s response as Koscielny and Mertesacker regrouped and helped get 10-man Gunners over the line, despite Callejon’s injury-time strike. It was a far from flawless performance and Arsenal paid the price, dropping to second in Group F, but the pair did enough in the opening three-quarters of the match to blunt Napoli’s threat.
No Naples miracle for Rafa
Benitez’s Liverpool side were always quick starters in must-win Champions League nights during the Spaniard’s five-year spell at Anfield. It often paid dividend as long-term Kopites will remember early goals against Juventus and Chelsea en route to their Istanbul triumph in 2005. Napoli needed three goals to be assured of progression regardless of events in Marseille and started with similar urgency on Wednesday night but simply lacked the guile to break down Arsenal’s rearguard in the opening stages. Higuain is a classy and powerful forward but without Marek Hamsik, Napoli’s midfield failed to show the invention necessary to navigate a way past Arsenal’s three central midfielders. Goran Pandev is a player with vast Champions League experience but relies more on his movement than trickery. Blerim Dzemaili and Valon Behrami lacked composure when the Swiss pair found themselves in attacking positions. But, as is often the case, possessing a single world-class player can prove sufficient to turn ties and Napoli’s club-record signing justified his £34.5m transfer fee with a classy finish past Szczesny in the 72nd minute – his fourth strike in this season’s Champions League. Former Los Blancos man Callejon added a second deep into injury time but it proved too little too late as Napoli feel one goal short as Borussia Dortmund secured a 2-1 win in France and progressed at the expense of Benitez’s side.