Arsenal do enough to get job done as Napoli bow out
Arteta’s sending off and late goals not enough to save Benitez’s Napoli
Blerim Dzemaili of Napoli after the finalwhistle at Stadio San Paolo. Photograph: Giuseppe Bellini/Getty Images
Napoli 2 Arsenal 0
Arsenal got the job done. It was not particularly pretty and it was a little bit nervous towards the end when Gonzalo Higuain, predictably, scored against the club that tried to sign him in the summer and Mikel Arteta, the Arsenal captain, was dismissed for a second yellow card in the 77th minute. There was even a further wobble when Jose Callejon scored with the final kick of the tie.
But Arsene Wenger’s team are in the knockout phase for the 14th season in succession and, in truth, their progress was never in doubt. They would have had to lose by three goals and despite the late drama, that never looked likely.
There was, however, a sting for both of these teams and if it was felt rather more keenly by Rafael Benitez and Napoli, it was not the greatest news for Arsenal either.
Napoli had needed to better Dortmund’s result at Marseille and they had looked set to do so. But, with two minutes remaining here, the news of Dortmund’s winning goal came through, to bring deflation. The Napoli support barely celebrated Callejon’s goal. Benitez knows a thing or two about heroic three-goal Champions League fightbacks but Napoli’s task had seemed hopeless at the outset. Eyes were kept on mobile phones for updates from France, where Neapolitan prayers were for a Marseille result against Dortmund.
There was frustration for hundreds of travelling supporters when the coaches that Arsenal had provided to transport them to the stadium did not arrive in time for kick-off. The club had wanted to ensure their safety amid fears of further fan violence involving Napoli’s ultras. Once finally inside, however, they felt this arena’s raw passion.
Napoli started brightly, pressing with urgency and attempting to hustle Arsenal from their stride. This was a time for Wenger’s team to keep their defensive shape and concentration; for players like Arteta and Mathieu Flamini to impart calmness. Dries Mertens, who started on the Napoli right, probed with menace and Arsenal dared not take their eyes off Higuain.
Goran Pandev worked Wojciech Szczesny in the opening exchanges from Mertens’ crossfield pass and there were loud shouts for an Arsenal handball after Pandev unloaded another shot. The referee, Viktor Kassai, was unmoved. Per Mertesacker also made important interventions.
Arsenal’s self-assurance was reflected in Santi Cazorla’s willingness to attempt to beat his man inside his own half, not to mention Laurent Koscielny’s composure when bringing the ball out of defence. Flamini was typically snappy in the challenge. The visitors absorbed Napoli’s early pressure and they grew comfortably into the game, even if Szczesny showed flashes of too much comfort. He rushed, ill-advisedly, from his line and was fortunate that Christian Maggio’s lob was too high, while the goalkeeper’s attempted clearance for Koscielny went straight at Higuain, who, instinctively, directed a header at goal. It went wide.
Arsenal, though, created the first half’s clearest chance on 23 minutes. After a lovely first-time touch from Flamini, towards the end of a slick Arsenal move, Olivier Giroud shot for the far corner only for Rafael, in for the injured Pepe Reina, to save. Mesut Ozil addressed the rebound but could not put his shot away.
Arsenal simply chalked the minutes off. And as the tie became stretched, they began to threaten on the counter. Napoli lived on their nerves.
Benitez introduced Lorenzo Insigne for Pandev and the winger’s first involvement was an instinctive flick that sent the left-back Pablo Armero sprinting clear of Tomas Rosicky and into the area. Faced by Szczesny, he shot with his left foot when the chance looked one for his right, and squeezed it straight at the goalkeeper.
While Dortmund were level in Marseille, Napoli could hope. One moment from them stood to change everything. Higuain continued to get into dangerous areas and then he got his big chance, as Arsenal fatefully gave him room.
Arsenal did not need to panic, although their task became more difficult when Arteta nibbled at the back of Callejon and drew his second yellow card. It seemed harsh; Callejon appeared to make the most of the contact. He would stroll through to lob Szczesny but by then, the die had been cast.