Saturday, December 3, 2022

Napoli 2-0 Arsenal: caveat qualification

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If the home game against Napoli was our best performance of the season, last night’s return fixture is probably up there with our worst.

Two second half goals for the home side, along with late winner in France for Dortmund, mean that we finish the group in second place and as such can draw one of 5 rather tasty teams in the round of 16. Not ideal, by any means, but when you consider the group itself, and the fact we finished with 12 points, we’re a bit unlucky too.

The first half, well, it consisted of countless fouls which stopped the game from flowing in any way. And to be honest, that kind of suited us. They couldn’t build any rhythm, we contained them well, and created the best opening of the half when Flamini set up Giroud for a left footed shot which the keeper saved. There was a moment of defensive brilliance for Koscielny, a Szczwobble and that was really about it.

In the second period though, Napoli began to assert themselves. We looked like we wanted to sit back and try and catch them on the break, but without someone with real pace it was always going to be a struggle. Giroud almost got onto the end of a long punt which saw them caught up-field but Usain Bolt he is not and the keeper got there first.

Perhaps we might have tried Walcott, in place of Cazorla or Ozil, because Giroud’s other qualities were important, but I think, given that we had a hard time keeping the ball, the manager was reluctant to put on a player for whom ball retention is fairly low down his list of talents. And with Carl Jenkinson really having a difficult time at right back, I suspect he was disinclined to make his night worse, even when we did go a goal behind.

The turn and shot from Higuain was top quality, Per will probably be a little disappointed that he allowed the striker to get off the shot, but as it stood we were still top due to Marseille drawing with Dortmund. The plan of containing them was over, but then we were in a position where we thought we probably should go for a goal but didn’t necessarily have to.

Mikel Arteta’s red card then made our minds up for us. It was what we have we hold from that point. I think it was extremely harsh, I have to say. No complaints about the first yellow but the second was ridiculous. Two fouls, two yellow cards, and the second one wasn’t even a foul. While of course you have to be sensible, I think even if you have been booked you have the right to make a challenge as long as it’s not illegal or dangerous.

Getting close to an opponent, then seeing that opponent completely exaggerate the minimal contact, is hardly worthy of a second yellow card in a big game. The ref, who seemed to be letting him away with it until he realised he could flourish a red, bought the simulation too easily. The frustration of the decision was exacerbated by the fact he let Mertens away with a worse tackle in the first half while he was on a yellow, while that jaundiced looking ex-West Ham twat, Behrami, got away with 6 fouls and no card – including one quite deliberate forearm smash into the side of Giroud’s head.

Not that I’m suggesting all our woes were down to the referee, but he certainly had an impact on our ability to try and get an equaliser. To be fair to us, I thought we ran down the clock quite well, kept the ball for periods, and although Callejon scored with what was essentially the last kick of the game, we didn’t look in real danger of being eliminated.

The final whistle went, Higuain cried like he’d lost a cup final – what was that about?! – and in Marseille the late goal for Dortmund meant they topped the group. Afterwards, Arsene said:

We prepared well and were concentrated but we were a bit in between ‘do we attack or do we defend’. It is difficult to cope with that problem. In the second half, I felt that our legs went a little bit and Napoli were sharper physically than us.

Saturday was on our mind, we knew to come to Naples would be difficult. We have done our job now we will give absolutely everything on Saturday morning.

So while it’s disappointing not to top the group and get a more favourable draw in the first knock-out round, that’s the way football goes some times. It’s not as if making life difficult for ourselves in Europe is something new. Even the best teams we had, with Vieira, Pires, Henry and Bergkamp, had their struggles in the Champions League, so I don’t see why this defeat should spark such outrage and contempt.

We’ve had a fantastic season up to now and sometimes you get games that don’t go your way. The consequences of that are obvious, but given that the next match doesn’t take place until February/March, we can’t really afford to dwell on it, especially when you look at the next two league games we’ve got.

What will be of some concern is that ahead of the City game we just didn’t quite click. For all the ‘confusion’ about the permutations, a draw would have seen us top the group, regardless of what Dortmund did. I think, like the game in Germany, we set out to contain Napoli then grab a goal, but we had too many players not quite at the races. When Mathieu Flamini is your most effective attacking outlet then you know something isn’t quite right.

However, this team has responded well to set-backs before this season, and I’m sure that before Saturday’s game they’ll analyse what went wrong and what we need to do against a City team that are extremely strong at home. In terms of preparation it’s not perfect, but sometimes you need to get performances like that out of your system, dust yourself off and get going again. Let’s hope that’s what happens.

The draw for the round of 16 takes place on Monday (I think), and I’m looking forward to playing Barcelona again. Hey, it’s all about the big nights.

Back tomorrow with an Arsecast, and we’ll have a column from Tim Stillman who I’m sure will touch on the disgraceful and dangerous way the Arsenal fans were treated in Italy last night.

Until then.

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