In what has been dubbed this season’s Group of Death, Group F threw up a contest between two sides brimming with confidence. The pair had enjoyed fine starts to the campaign, only once dropping points. Both enjoyed winning starts on Matchday 1, Napoli notably against last season’s finalists Borussia Dortmund. So when Arsenal and Napoli did battle at the Emirates Stadium much was expected. In the end, there was only ever one team in it.
England has not been a happy hunting ground for Napoli and their last London visit in particular – their Champions League exit against Chelsea – is one that stings. Three previous visits yielded two losses and a draw.
Going into Tuesday’s game, the Partenopei mantra was one of no fear. Coach Rafael Benitez made note of this in his pre-match Press conference. “Obviously, we have a lot of respect for Arsenal, a lot, but never fear because we do not fear any rival.” Giandomenico Mesto spoke along the same lines.
Benitez hoped to turn around a poor Emirates record, having never taken maximum points from the venue. Just 15 minutes in and that record remained intact, a devastating Arsenal start sealing the contest. The Gazzetta dello Sport called it Arsenal in “killer mode.” Mesut Ozil finished off a sweeping Gunners move with a superb effort from the edge of the penalty area, giving Pepe Reina no chance just eight minutes in. Arsenal’s second arrived soon after, an errant clearance from a Napoli throw pounced upon by Ozil, before Olivier Giroud’s finish.
As Benitez pointed out, mistakes like that are punished at this level. “I can guarantee we told the players the opening 20 minutes would be very fiery. We knew they’d come out at us with pace, but these two goals made the difference.” The team failed to heed his warning. For Marek Hamsik, Napoli gifted Arsenal the opening stages.
The Partenopei were praised for the summer acquisitions and while the new arrivals in attack have settled quickly in the southern city, defensively there remained a concern. Nonetheless, five goals conceded in seven games prior to landing on British soil was a solid return. They had displayed enough defensive steel to suggest their capabilities. However, this match followed along the lines of the win at Chievo, one in which the Partenopei looked fragile. Here, Arsenal were hungrier, quicker and smarter – both in movement and possession. Napoli’s back four were pulled apart and stretched too often. Arsene Wenger called the opening 45 minutes ‘outstanding’.
Main striker Gonzalo Higuain was absent, but the issues ran deeper. Napoli’s inability to neither deal with Arsenal’s pressing nor play with any incision from the back rendered their main attacking threats ineffective. Lorenzo Insigne looked the best of the bunch – only he, Reina and Mesto registered a rating of 6 in today’s Gazzetta – but it was a far cry from their electric best. Napoli’s best chance was headed over by Miguel Britos in the first half.
Benitez saw encouragement after half-time, but by then the damage was done. Arsenal could afford to take a foot off the gas and still remain in control. The Spaniard did not want to pin their deficiencies on Higuain’s absence, stating his replacement Goran Pandev had netted twice at Genoa over the weekend. Could Higuain have stemmed the first half flow? Doubtful. Perhaps after the break when Napoli had more looks on goal he would have played a role. Here, Insigne and Gokhan Inler employed a shoot-on-sight policy which failed miserably.
It’s not all doom and gloom for Napoli. As Hamsik stressed pre-match this was not a decisive affair for qualification. Upcoming is a double offering against Marseille, currently bottom of the group. Dual wins against the French club will have the Azzurri poised for a big finale, which sees a trip to Dortmund followed by the visit of Arsenal.
Benitez will hope they learn from the lessons handed out by a well-drilled and experience European campaigner.