Arsenal 2 Napoli 0
If only Arsenal could unlock the bewildering and elusive secret to away games. Having given themselves an encouraging leg up with another confident win here inspired by the midfield efforts of Aaron Ramsey and Lucas Torreira, attention now switches to Naples and a daunting mission to see this enthralling quarter-final through.
The burning question jangling around everybody’s head at the end of this was simple: is 2-0 enough? Can Arsenal find the composure and resilience to go into hostile territory with their feeble away record and withstand the pressures that await?
Unai Emery echoed the lineup that served him well for the performances that have set a benchmark since the turn of the year – a five-day spell when they beat Manchester United (2-0) and completed a stirring comeback against Rennes (3-0). The search for the elusive balance between defensive rigour and attacking zest was front and centre against Carlo Ancelotti’s Napoli, second in Serie A and the strongest team to parachute down from this season’s Champions League into the Europa.
No rocket science was required to figure out how Arsenal needed to make some form of statement in the first game of this tie to give themselves a platform to take to the Stadio San Paolo. All their attacking experience, with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette supported by Mesut Özil and the ever forward-looking Ramsey, pushed up from the off, getting at Napoli before they had a chance to settle. Behind them Torreira chopped into tackles to win control of midfield.
Ramsey forged the first shot on target and set the tone. The Welshman has been in inspirational form lately, arguably the best and most consistently mature period of his Arsenal career, and he opened the scoring from a move he instigated and finished with aplomb. Having intercepted, he helped along a fluid passing move that travelled via Özil, Lacazette and Ashley Maitland-Niles and then arrived with trademark timing to calmly plant his shot into the corner of the net.
Every such intervention feels bittersweet as Ramsey, who joined the club as a teenager, will leave for Juventus in the summer. He is certainly trying his all to leave behind plenty of memories and fly off leaving a farewell prize.
Next up to propel Arsenal forwards was a player making strides in the early stages of his time at the club. Torreira has been peripheral lately, serving a suspension after a period of winter fatigue, and the Uruguayan was back with a vengeance, pouncing on Fabian Ruiz in the heart of midfield and broke with intent. Fortune favoured him as he took a pot shot, which ricocheted off Kalidou Koulibaly and looped in for an own goal.
Ancelotti had brought his team to London in shaky form but still must have been aggrieved by how uncompetitive they were throughout the first half. Arsenal could have helped themselves to an even bigger cushion. Özil embellished the game with some flashes of pure craft. Lacazette miscued in front of goal. Aubameyang twice tested Napoli's goalkeeper Alex Meret. With their opponent breathing hard against the ropes it would have been a fine time to surge away.
That risk of an away goal, a momentary lapse of reason, always lingers. Just before half-time Lorenzo Insigne ballooned a chance over the crossbar, which summed up Napoli's frustration but also showed Arsenal needed to be careful.
Ancelotti’s half-time words at least engineered a reaction. Napoli emerged from the dressing room with cranked up determination and a higher press. Insigne led the charge to make an impression and Arsenal’s defence were increasingly on the alert. The capain did squeeze the ball into Petr Cech’s net in the 51st minute but he was comfortably offside. Then Arsenal gave away a corner and Koulibaly’s header was tipped away by Cech. The warning bells went up a few decibels as did the visiting corner of Napoli fans.
Arsenal’s defensive trio diced with danger as they played a tight offside with Insigne darting forwards seemingly whenever his team had possession. Again that balancing act came into play – could they hold firm while also springing forward to search for more goals? Meret saved Napoli time and again, meeting Ramsey’s lashed shot with an instinctive save before he came to his team’s rescue to tip away from Sead Kolasinac and Maitland-Niles.
This tie teetered on a wafer-thin line. Suddenly Napoli carved open a golden opportunity as Insigne cantered away to deliver a perfect cross for Piotr Zielinski. The Pole got his body shape wrong and skewed his shot horribly. Ten minutes from the end Arsenal eked out an equally strong chance to tilt the tie but on this occasion Ramsey scooped his shot over the crossbar. Even later Aubameyang curled into the sidenetting. - Guardian