Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Arsenal Lose To Napoli And Finish Second In Their Group

Arsenal went to Napoli in their final Champions League group game with various permutations and combinations possible. The bottom line was they would definitely win the group if they avoided defeat and finish second at worst as long as they didn't lose by more than two goals. The prize for winning the group would have been a game against one of the other group runners up which was infinitely superior to playing a group winner in the last 16.

With big games coming thick and fast Arsene Wenger made a few changes from the team which drew 1-1 at home to Everton on Sunday. Mathieu Flamini and Tomas Rosicky came in to replace Aaron Ramsey and Jack Wilshere in midfield, but there was still no place in the team for Theo Walcott. He's been back from his injury for a few weeks now, but there's no sign of him getting a start in the team.

The first half was pretty much a non event with Arsenal dominating possession and Napoli taking every opportunity they could to foul them. The best chance for Arsenal fell to Olivier Giroud but the keeper saved well from him and Napoli never really looked like scoring. There was one scare when Wojciech Szczesny was too casual with a clearance and almost let them in, but thankfully nothing came of it. 

Napoli knew they had to get a win to have any real chance of qualifying and they pushed further forward in the second half. They knew they would qualify if they took more points than Dortmund who were away to pointless Marseille. That game was level at 1-1 at half time, but Marseille were reduced to 10 men 10 minutes before the break. 

Arsenal seemed to be caught in no mans land as they offered very little going forward and seemed content to soak up the pressure and play for a draw. They seemed to be succeeding in their task until Gonzalo Higuain swivelled on the edge of the box and drove the ball into the corner of the Arsenal goal with 17 minutes left. There had been a few warnings before that and Napoli probably deserved the goal for their second half performance.

I was worried that Napoli would throw the kitchen sink at Arsenal and that worry increased only three minutes later when Mikael Arteta received a red card for his second yellow card offence. It left the remaining 10 players with a tough task to hold on, but I still felt confident they could do it. Within a few minutes Napoli actually eased up as they realised they would qualify from the group with Dortmund still drawing in France. 

It was a dangerous tactic from them and it didn't pay off when Dortmund got a late goal to put Napoli back into third place. There was very little time left for Napoli to get the two goals they needed to put them through, but they did manage one with virtually the last kick of the game. News of the Dortmund goal must have reached the Arsenal players as they went in search of a goal for the first time since Arteta saw red and Napoli hit them on the break. A great ball over the defence from the right was coolly chipped over the advancing Szczesny to make it 2-0 to Napoli.

The final whistle went as soon as Arsenal kicked off and with it Arsenal finished as group runners up. The difference in the end was very slight and Napoli missed out because of their two goal defeat to Dortmund a couple of weeks ago. It means Arsenal will face one of the five group winnerrs who aren't English and don't include Dortmund. 

The list of teams is an incredibly strong one and Arsenal will have a very tough task in the next round. They will play one of Bayern Munich, Barcelona, Real Madrid, Atletico Madrid or PSG. The draw takes place next week with the games to be played in a couple of months from now. 

While I would have been delighted for Arsenal to have won their group I'm still happy they qualified from a very togh group. Napoli are the first team in the Chsmpions League not to qualify from their group with 12 points and that shoes how tight it was between the three teams. There's a lot of ifs and buts that could be gone into, but for me the team did very well to progress after losing at home to Dortmund on match day three.

Arteta may have been a bit stupid to get his second yellow card but Arsenal were already trailing at that stage and didn't play well at all in the second half. If Walcott had been on the pitch he might have had the pace to get on to two through balls which Giroud couldn't reach. I think Giroud has been fantastic this season but he does lack a little pace.

To me the players looked a little tired and they have a very heavy schedule at the moment. There is no let up for the moment either with a trip to free scoring City in the early kick off on Saturday. I'll look at that closer in the coming days but meanwhile that's it for now.

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