Scintillating Arsenal Thrash Napoli But Leave Door Open For Second Leg Comeback
Arsenal versus Napoli was the most glamorous and anticipated tie when it was announced. The sides entered the matchup with identical 9/2 odds to win the competition and receive the automatic bid to next season’s Champions League. The first leg at the Emirates Stadium lived up to the hype.
There was an electric atmosphere in London Thursday night. The energy felt as if it belonged to a Champions League match. This isn’t surprising, as both sides traditionally are not languishing in the secondary competition that is the Europa League. Napoli are a near certainty to qualify for the Champions League, as they sit in second in Serie A. The top four sides in Italy all qualify.
For Arsenal, though, the situation is more tenuous, as the Gunners sit fifth in England. Fans know their side may have to win the Europa League to avoid a third straight season stuck in the competition. They responded accordingly, transforming themselves into a significant 12th man.
Emirates Stadium has been a fortress this season. The fans’ added energy for this match fortified Arsenal’s control of the ground even further. Players coaches and fans united to create a performance that embodied Arsenal’s motto – “victory through harmony.” The result was one of Arsenal’s greatest performances of the season. The match finished 2-0, with the Gunners being worth another goal or two. Instead, the tie now remains on a knife edge as it heads back to Naples for the return leg next week.
All Guns Blazing in the First Half
The opening stanza was an impressive display from the Gunners. The home side’s personality and intensity shone brightly as Arsenal blitzed Napoli, who struggled to get a foothold in the match. Within 25 minutes, Arsenal were two ahead.
The opener was a magnificent, a vintage Arsenal goal. Ainsley Maitland-Niles won possession and sparked a sublime counter-attack. Mesut Ozil, Aaron Ramsey, Alexandre Lacazette and Maitland-Niles linked up in a flowing move down the right. Maitland-Niles managed to keep composure in a tight space in the box while spinning and laying off a perfectly weighted pass for Ramsey. Given his penchant for scoring big goals, the midfielder remained poised and slotted a low shot into the far corner.
The goal swung momentum heavily in Arsenal’s favor, as Napoli tried desperately to avoid conceding a second. They failed. Lucas Torriera, who was brilliant all game, used his instincts to win the ball back high up the pitch. Not known as a scoring threat, the midfielder surprisingly raced towards goal with only one thing on his mind. He faked a shot with his right and shifted the ball back to his left foot. The shot took a deflection off of Kalidou Koulibaly and flew into the net. Torriera attempted to claim the goal, but it officially was ruled an own goal.
A third goal would have been enough for Arsenal to head to Italy with extreme confidence. The Gunners hunted for that pivotal goal aggressively. However, against the run of play it was Napoli who nearly found the next goal just before halftime. Insigne latched onto a perfectly weighted drawn ball after a counter attack but sent his shot over the bar.
Tactical Masterclass from Emery
One of the major points of intrigue for this tie was the coaching match up. Unai Emery is considered a Europa League specialist, having won the completion three times. Conversely, Carlo Ancelotti is a master of European football himself, having won the Champions league three times with Milan and Madrid.
The Spaniard got the best of his Italian counterpart on this night. After taking significant and warranted criticism for his questionable choices in Arsenal’s loss to Everton over the weekend, Emery appeared a master against Napoli. He deployed the Gunners in a 3-5-2 setup which allowed him to get all of his best players on the pitch. Granit Xhaka was injured, but Torriera, Ramsey, Ozil, Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang all started.
Playing his best players was instrumental to Arsenal’s success, but their alignment was just as crucial. Deploying two strikers allowed Arsenal to press Napoli high up the pitch. The visitors’ defenders were under pressure all game and when they played the ball short into midfield, Arsenal hunted in packs to win it back and launch another attack. When Napoli attempted to play long balls over the top, Arsenal’s cohesive offside trap repeatedly drew the flag from the linesmen.
A Second Half of Spurned Chances
Napoli are a far better side than what they had shown in the first half, and they grew into the game after halftime. Arsenal had expended massive reserves of energy early and began to wane later on. The third goal of the match would be crucial. If Napoli could find an away goal, a simple 1-0 win at home would send them into the semis. An Arsenal third would send them to Naples with significant breathing room. Neither side could find what it needed.
A short corner routine from the training ground saw Ramsey’s shot saved brilliantly by Alex Meret in the 58th minute. Ten minutes later Meret saved Napoli again, tipping Maitland-Niles’ shot over the bar.
In the 71st minute, Napoli generated the chance they had been waiting for. Lorenzo Insigne finally beat the offside trap and broke free down the right channel. He slid a tantalizing cross through the box that found left winger Piotr Zielinski speeding towards goal. He panicked and took his shot with the wrong foot. Somehow he contrived to put it over the bar from close range. Napoli’s best chance for a vital away goal had gone begging.
Ramsey, who was brilliant all game, missed another glaring chance ten minutes later. The Welshman made one of his signature late runs into the box that was found by Henrikh Mkhitaryan. Instead of icing the tie, the Welshman too found a way to sky his shot from close range.
Napoli Still Very Much Alive
The Emirates has not been a happy hunting ground for Italian sides in recent years. Arsenal have not lost a match to Italian opposition in their new stadium. Roma, Udinese, AC Milan (twice) and Napoli (twice) have all lost at Arsenal over the past decade plus. The Gunners have only been eliminated from European competition by an Italian team once since 2000.
Despite history being against them, Napoli will head home to the Stadio San Paolo for the return leg full of confidence. They were outplayed in London, but Arsenal have been dreadful away from home recently. The Gunners lost the away legs against Rennes and Borisov – far weaker sides than Napoli – in the last two rounds.
Arsenal face the disadvantage of having to play a massive away match in the Premier League on Monday. Napoli play a less meaningful Seire A match on Sunday. Therefore, the Italian side will have an extra day’s rest before next Thursday’s decisive encounter. If Napoli can get an early goal in that match, they’ll feel extremely confident that the two goal deficit can be overcome.
Photo credit to Arsenal via Twitter