Arsenal took a big step toward qualifying for the Champions League knockout phase for the 14th successive season with an impressive 2–0 win against Napoli at Emirates Stadium on Tuesday. The Gunners truly left no doubt in this one.
Marquee signing Mesut Özil scored the Gunners’ first goal and set up the second; Wales skipper Aaron Ramsey also put in another fine performance. Arsenal now sit comfortably on top of the group, though with home and away clashes with last year’s beaten finalists Borussia Dortmund to come, nothing can be taken for granted.
This was the first competitive meeting between the two teams, although they did play out a 2–2 draw in early August as part of the pre-season Emirates Cup. In fact, it was only Napoli’s fourth visit to England in their entire history.
By contrast, the Serie A club’s manager Rafael Benitez is, of course, no stranger to either England or the Emirates. The Spaniard has crossed swords with Arsene Wenger many times as manager of Liverpool and briefly for Chelsea, but interestingly, his record at the Emirates is far from impressive. During his stint as Liverpool boss, Benitez managed only three draws and five losses away to Arsenal.
England star Theo Walcott, who was so impressive in Arsenal’s Match Day 1 victory at Marseille, has undergone successful abdominal surgery in Germany and is expected to be fit again in two to three weeks.
Perhaps surprisingly for a home game, Wenger opted for experience and stability in midfield, selecting Tomas Rosicky and Mikel Arteta ahead of Jack Wilshere. German international Özil started his 43rd Champions League match.
The visitors’ big summer signing from Real Madrid, Gonzalo Higuain, was not fully fit and so the responsibility of leading the attack was entrusted to the Macedonian Goran Pandev. Another old Arsenal adversary, Pepe Reina, on a year’s loan from Liverpool, was between the posts for the Italian side.
Whirlwind Start by Arsenal
It was 17 years to the day since Wenger took up the reins at Arsenal and this was his 965th game in charge. He is far and away the famous old club’s longest serving manager.
For the last 16 years, Wenger has guided the team into the group stages of the Champions League. Only Manchester United and Real Madrid can boast a better record than that.
Arsenal started this game impressively showing the sparkling form that has put them two points clear at the top of the Premier League, and seen them go unbeaten since that opening day setback against Aston Villa.
The game was only eight minutes old when some classy play down the right flank freed Ramsey who darted into the box before pulling back a delightful diagonal low cross into the path of Özil.
The German of Turkish ancestry made the finish look easy, but it was far from that. His first time side-footer with that trusty left boot displayed superb technique and the ball literally flew past Reina into the net.
Seven minutes later, Napoli sloppily lost possession in their own defensive third following a throw-in. Özil gobbled up the scraps and this time became provider as he headed into the penalty area to the byline. A lovely little flick with the outside of the left foot found Olivier Giroud in the 6-yard area.
This time last year there would have been only a 50-50 likelihood of Giroud converting the chance, but right now he is full of confidence and was not about to make a mistake.
No Way Back for Napoli
Having gone two down, Napoli had little choice but to try and break out. They did enjoy some decent spells of possession, but it is testament to the settled nature of Arsenal’s back four right now that the visitors could not manufacture a single shot on target for the remainder of the first half.
Napoli did little better in the second period. It was a more workmanlike performance from Arsenal in the second period with the Gunners being happy to contain their opponents and hit them on the break.
In fact, Wojciech Szczesny had to wait until the 71st minute before Napoli managed a shot on target and even then it was nothing that was going to trouble him.
Despite playing well within themselves throughout the second half, Arsenal still looked threatening when they did break forward, and they could easily have grabbed a third in the 76th minute. However, Reina pulled off a fine reaction save from Laurent Koscielny to prevent further embarrassment.
In the postmatch press conference Wenger summed up his team’s performance saying they showed, “great pace with belief, authority in our game, great finishing, great movement.
“That’s what you want to see.”
For his part, Benitez, rather stating the obvious, conceded, “We did not do well.”
He expressed the view that Arsenal’s good start was crucial. “If they score two goals in the first 15 minutes, then it’s easy for them to play at the level they can play.”