For over an hour in Naples Arsenal were doing what they had to do in order to get the point needed to clinch top spot in group F. The final seventeen minutes saw crucial goals in both Naples and Marseille that saw us qualifying for the knock-out phase instead in second place. Most would have taken that when the draw placed us in what surely was the most competitive group.
What a shame that so many traveling Gooners missed the start having been messed around on the coaches booked to take them safely to the stadium.
The home team, knowing that they needed a three goal triumph to control their own destiny, started with gusto. In spurts they closed down all over the pitch, and Arsenal were grateful that Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny were in superb form. Off the back of that solid defensive resistance we had phases of attacking intent ourselves.
A feature of the opening half was the number of times that Napoli resorted to physical intimidation unchecked by referee Viktor Kassai. Behrami, Dzemaili, and Mertens offended on multiple occasions before the latter finally found his way into the book in the 36th minute. Four minutes later the same player avoided a second caution which would lead to raised eyebrows later in the match. I do not recall, and the BBC live text commentary does not record, any foul by Mikel Arteta.
Half-chances were traded by both sides with Giroud, Ozil, and Flamini unable to hit the target for Arsenal while Higuain squandered his team’s best opportunity having latched onto a rare (this season) poor clearance from Wojciech Szczesny.
After the break I thought that following a bright opening we looked as though a decision had been taken to soak up whatever pressure Napoli might attempt to exert in the final quarter of the game. It didn’t quite work out that way, sadly. If anybody was destined to score against us tonight it was Higuain, for whom we were gazumped in the summer if reports are accurate. With sixteen minutes remaining we were still topping the group as Dortmund were level in Marseille.
Then controversy in the shape of a second yellow card for Arteta, for what was possibly only his second ‘foul‘. No complaints here about his first booking for a reckless hack. The second however seemed a questionable decision not helped by a dramatic tumble by Callejon. He was not the only Napoli player apparently suffering an ear balance infection on the night.
The closing stages in the south of France did no favours for either of the sides in Naples. A late Dortmund winner pushed both sides down a place in the group. Eliminated Napoli went down with the consolation of a second goal with the last meaningful kick of the night by Callejon. They can look forward to joining the neighbours in the Thursday version of the European Johnstone’s Paints Trophy playing teams of postmen from Cockmenistan.
A period of reflection has passed and again I have to record that just getting out of this group was considered a tough ask when the draw was made. Certainly, we now face a very good team in the round of sixteen. It can only be Barcelona, Real Madrid, Atletico Madrid, Bayern Munich , or PSG. Tonight I will take that. Beat any of those and nobody will want to draw us in the quarter-final. Yes, we will be doing it the hard way, but that is the Arsenal way. As Thierry Henry noted tonight on our charge to the 2006 Final few gave us any chance against Real Madrid or Juventus in the last sixteen and quarter-final.
At least we have the opportunity to do something similar. Onwards to the next big challenge. Middle Eastlands, 63 hours after the end in Naples.