Arsenal cannot afford to nap against Napoli
Arsenal appears to head the race to bag a top four finish in the Premier League and subsequently return to Champions League football next season, following strong performances against rivals Tottenham and Manchester United. However, the Europa League offers Unai Emery, who has history in the competition having won it three times in a row with Sevilla, a safety net of qualification to the main club competition in Europe.
Winning the competition would ensure that we would go straight to the group stages, without needing to pass through the unnecessary play-offs in early august and with an added chance to put some further silverware in the cabinet. The draw has been made last Friday and we now know who stands in front of us if we want to reach the final in Baku. The first hurdle will be getting past Italian side Napoli.
The tournament got off to a good start for the Gunners, as they topped the group winning five and drawing just one of the six group games, against second placed Sporting CP. Unfortunately, the knockout stages have not been quite so straight forward. The round of 32 saw us come up against BATE Borisov and Arsenal seemed to have underestimated the Belarusians, slipping to a 1-0 away defeat in the first leg to Hleb’s current team.
Nonetheless, at the Emirates – without Alexandre Lacazette, who was red carded in the away match – Emery’s boys came back with a remarkable 3-0 victory. The next round, against Rennes, followed a similar pattern, but with an even worst first leg. Away from home, now in France. 10 men, with Sokratis being ruled out. Defeat for 3-1. Yet again, the team rose to the moment at the home game and with an amazing performance by star man Aubameyang we came back with a 3-0 victory. That’s two mountains, both selves made, both climbed. But why do we do it the hard way?
There are two schools of thought here. Firstly, is it arrogance? We’re used to Champions League football, our history is full of success. Does subconscious complacency come into play? Possibly. The other, which is more of a concern, is it purely that we’re too soft and don’t stand up to the challenge away from home? Either way, one thing is for sure, we can’t leave ourselves with a mountain to climb against Napoli or we’ll struggle to claw our way back.
Unlike the last two rounds, the first leg is at the Emirates, where we’ve won all but one – a goalless draw with Sporting – of our Europa League matches this season, which, given our poor away form is probably a good thing. Napoli entered the Europa League following an underwhelming Champions League group stage. Still if you have in mind their group included PSG and Liverpool, and that they finished their group with the same points as the Reds and same goal difference, you would believe the Italians just were unlucky with the early UCL draw.
Furthermore, they are strong defensively and concede less than one goal per game on average, but with Arsenal attacking prowess we can believe them to concede in the Emirates. They’re marshalled by Kalidou Koulibaly, the powerful Senegalese centerback who is being courted by Premier League teams and whatever strike force Emery picks will have to be on top of their game to get much off him. Koulibaly, who deemed the clash with Arsenal as ‘very exciting’ is probably one of the few defenders in the world who is capable of challenging Aubameyang’s speed.
There may be a familiar face behind the rear-guard in David Ospina, who is eligible to face his parent club under the terms of his loan, but don’t be surprised to see Italy youngster Alex Meret, 21, start and he has an impressive shut out ratio having kept nine clean sheets in 15 appearances this season.
The Italians, who are managed by the experienced Carlo Ancellotti, are not a team that comes to ‘park the bus’. Going forward they have a wealth of talent including polish forward Arkadiusz Milik, who after spending some seasons injured, is enjoying his best one so far, having bagged 18 goals already. Belgium’s Dries Mertens and club captain Lorenzo Insigne, have been involved in 43 goals between them too and they are players to watch and man mark carefully.
Napoli will no doubt arrive at the Emirates looking to keep things tight with a game plan to utilise their key players to punish us on the counter, however, one suspects they’d settle for a draw – particularly if it included an away goal – and they’ll fancy their chances of capitalising on our away record in the San Paolo stadium, which is known for its electric atmosphere.
The absence of Marek Hamsik, the experienced Slovak midfielder who became a symbol of the club, before departing to China in February, has not created a serious negative impact on Napoli. Zielinski and Allan are responsible for keeping the team’s midfield compact, offering both the playmaking, creativity and aggressiveness that is necessary.
The italians are currently at second position in Serie A, 7 points ahead of third placed Internazionale, with the Champions League place for next season likely safe. Since they have a 15-point difference for Juventus, who is a horse racing on its own like usual, they should not be concerned with their league performance and so their focus is entirely on Europa League.
Arsenal shall have this in mind where they play Napoli, in the 11th and 18th of April, so they do not underestimate their opponents like they did in the previous fixtures. This matchup is in no way beyond us, we’re the Gunners and, on our day, we’re one of the best in the world but rest assured, if we get put on the hook – like the last two knockout rounds – we won’t be getting off it against an experienced Napoli side. If we pull this, we will face Villarreal or Valencia next and then it is just a step to enjoy another European final in an Arsenal shirt. Buckle up boys, time to take this seriously!
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