Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Napoli preview: Wenger looks for three points from ‘defining’ game

Tonight’s game is an interesting one because of the permutations involved. Three teams can still qualify for the round of 16 with Dortmund taking on Marseille at the same time.

It’s possible that Arsenal, Napoli and Dortmund could finish with 12 points, and UEFA say: “In the event of a three-way head-to-head on 12 points, the two qualifiers will be decided by the precise scorelines between the three teams.” There’s further explanation of what it all means here on the official site.

But for us not to qualify and Napoli to go through, they have to get a better result against us than Dortmund get at Marseille (so say UEFA, anyway). Basically, it’s ours to lose. Marseille are manager-less and likely to get a good pounding from the Germans tonight, so there’ll be no favours done there.

Update: here are the permutations in very simple form.

In terms of our approach, containment hasn’t ever really been our thing but in recent times we’ve shown a stubbornness in defence that would make this plausible. We went to Bayern Munich with the game plan not to concede and it worked, and at the tail end of last season our results were achieved by a more defensive strategy than we’re used to under Arsene Wenger.

Yet Napoli are a team we’ve already beaten this season and beaten well. In fact, our most convincing performance of the season came against them. A devastating first half followed by a second in which we controlled the game completely, playing the game on our terms. However, tonight will be slightly different. Not just because they’re at home, but because they have to win the game to go through and that will certainly shape their approach.

Rafa Benitez says:

We believe we can win and we will make every attempt to achieve win it

It’s why I suspect Theo Walcott will start for Arsenal tonight as we look to use that fact and hit them with pace on the counter-attack. Even without Theo it’s something we’ve been doing well most of the season, his ability to get in behind and stay ahead of the defenders will certainly give them something to think about. It might even make them a bit more cautious about coming forward, but if they have to really go for it, then there will be gaps for us to exploit.

In terms of the rest of the team, the manager says there’s nobody in that fabled ‘red zone’ we hear about when tiredness makes injury more likely, and says of his selection tonight:

We can’t afford to rest players. I rotate a little bit sometimes, never more than two or three because stability is important.  When you play so many games, sometimes in one game you have a feeling the legs are a bit tired, but sometimes the game after they surprise you again and everybody has recovered. Overall, we have no major sign of fatigue medically.

I get completely what he says about stability, but I still think we’ll see those two or three changes tonight. Walcott, Rosicky, perhaps Flamini into midfield alongside, or in place of, Mikel Arteta. Changes that allow him to keep things a bit fresh but which don’t diminish the overall quality of the team he puts out.

Defensively we’ve been extremely solid this season and it’s hard to imagine things falling apart to the point where we might face elimination. Indeed, the way the players have been talking, they’re going out there to take three points. The idea of sitting back and seeing the game out in some way is not in their minds. Wojciech Szczesny says:

I don’t think we should approach the game thinking that we need to avoid a defeat. We believe that we’re good enough to go there and get a win. We don’t need to change our attitude, we need to keep it going the way we have been and that should give us a result.

It will be tough, as it always is against a Benitez team, but they conceded three at home at the weekend against Udinese and after a very good start to the season have fallen off the pace a little bit in recent weeks. We can take the confidence of what we did to them in the first game into this one, and hopefully the three points will see us top the group.

While finishing first doesn’t always guarantee you an easy draw in the knock-out stages, finishing second in our group in recent seasons has seen us face Barcelona and Bayern Munich, both of whom went on to win the trophy in those years. Tonight provides us a good chance to top our group and, hopefully, a better chance to progress as the tournament reaches its later stages.

Beyond the game itself not a whole lot happening. I watched that Keane v Vieira programme last night on ITV4. While there was, perhaps, a bit too much of Keane v Ferguson (although I quite liked Keane sticking it to Demento time and time again), it was a brilliant reminder of how intense and enjoyable the rivalry was between the two players, and the two teams, back then.

It was something a bit special, probably because the title was a two-horse race season after season, and it’s hard not to miss it a bit. One of the best things about football is the healthy hatred, the desire to crush the opposition, and Arsenal v United back then was like that. Built entirely on sporting, rather than financial foundations, it was unmissable every time and perhaps it’s a time we’ll look back, if we don’t already, as a kind of golden age.

If you can find a download of it, I recommend it.

Remember, if time zones mean you’re stuck in work and you can’t see the match later, you can follow every kick on the live blog. Up to the second live text commentary which works on your computer, phone, tablet or anything else. Check back later for a post with all the details, or bookmark our default live blog page.

See you for that, and hopefully analysis of a good win on tomorrow’s blog. Until then.

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