Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Arsenal's Trip To Napoli Previewed

Arsenal's Champions League group has come down to the final game yet again despite the fact that they have won four of their five games already. Usually 10 points is enough for any team to progress to the knockout stages, but Marseille have lost all of their games so far and left the group delicately poised. Arsenal are in the strongest position of the three clubs who can still qualify as they are three points ahead of both Napoli and Borussia Dortmund.

As the group stands Arsenal will finish top if they avoid defeat against Napoli and can only be eliminated if they lose by more than two goals and Dortmund win in Marseille. It has to be assumed Dortmund will get the win they need with Marseille having nothing but their pride to play for. It's very rare for a team to take no points at all from their Champions League group, but that's what faces Marseille if they lose against Dortmund. They were only beaten by one goal at home to both Arsenal and Napoli, but Arsenal cannot put their hopes in Marseille's hands and must concentrate on what they need to do themselves.

It's not easy to know how Arsene Wenger will approach the game and he says he will set out to win it as always. I can't imagine Arsenal over committing players forward though as they cannot leave themselves open to a counter attack. With that in mind I think there will be a few changes from the team which drew 1-1 at home to Everton on Sunday to move five points clear at the top of the league.

Their cause isn't helped by some crazy TV scheduling which saw them play Everton at 4pm on Sunday afternoon and sees them face City away in the early kick off on Saturday. Other clubs have complained in the past about the Premier League's inability to schedule games to give their clubs the best possible chance in European games. In other countries clubs with upcoming Champions League games always play their previous game on a Saturday and their following game on a Sunday to give them the best chance possible of getting a good result. There is no such plan in place in the Premier League as the needs of the clubs are overlooked for the needs of the TV companies.

Theo Walcott hasn't started a game since his return from injury a few weeks ago and he has been limited to substitute cameos. I think he is ideally suited for this game as Napoli have to push forward in search of goals and he has the pace to hit them on the break. If Mesut Ozil plays I expect to see Walcott sprinting towards goal on the end of passes supplied by Arsenal's record signing.

Before pursuing Ozil Arsenal were interested in signing Gonzalo Higuain among others and looked like they had agreed a deal with Real Madrid for his services at one stage. I can only imagine they would not have shattered the club's transfer record on Ozil if they had already broken it to sign Higuain. I think Ozil is a better player but Higuain would have been a fantastic addition to the squad too.

In midfield I would be surprised if both Mikael Arteta and Mathieu Flamini didn't play together in holding roles in front of the defence. Arsenal have been a lot stronger in defence this season than they have been for a few years and are conceding far fewer goals. Since the opening day 3-1 defeat to Villa only Dortmund have scored more than one goal against Arsenal in any game with the exception of the Capital One Cup defeat to Chelsea.

The boss has said there won't be too much rotation and besides Flamini and Walcott coming in the only other possible changes might be the inclusion of either Nacho Monreal or Tomas Rosicky or both of them. There's an argument for resting either Ozil or Aaron Ramsey but I would be surprised if both of them don't start as they are so important to the team right now. Neither Bacary Sagna or Lukas Podolski were included in the squad for the game, but they might be available for Saturday's game with a little luck.

I think Napoli will try to throw everything they have at Arsenal to try to get an early advantage and unnerve Arsenal. The team will have to be strong in defence but they have already shown how strong they can be with some excellent defensive displays away from home in particular in the last nine months. No team has scored more than one goal against Arsenal away from home since they lost to their knuckle dragging neighbours on March 3rd last.

There will be chances for Arsenal on the break and that's where the pace of Walcott and passing of Ozil will come into play. Olivier Giroud will have an important role to play too as he will be required to hold the ball up and take the pressure off the defensive players when he can. His aerial ability will come into play at defensive set pieces too as it always does.

Napoli are in a third position in their domestic league with 32 points from 15 games and have won their two home group games in the Champions League too. They could progress with a draw if Dortmund lose, but they know they are only guaranteed to make the knockout stages if they win by three goals. They have to chase the game from first minute to last and hopefully that will play right into Arsenal's hands.

I think Arsenal will score at least one goal and if that's the case Napoli will need four goals which I just cannot see happening. I think Arsenal might actually get the win the boss has said they will go for as long as they can take some of the chances they get on the break. If they don't win the game it's crucial they don't lose as the likely opponents in the next round will be very tough for the runners up.

If Arsenal were to come second they would have to play one of Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Real Madrid, Atletico Madrid or PSG and while I think they would have a chance against all of them I would prefer to avoid those teams for as long as possible. If Arsenal can win their group the alternatives should read something like Bayer Leverkusen, Juventus, Olympiakos, Basle or Schalke, Zenit or Porto and Milan or Ajax. To me those options are a lot more preferable than facing any of the group winners. 

While I always predict an Arsenal win I will be more than happy as long as they avoid defeat, but I'm still predicting a narrow victory. With two crucial league games coming up it would be a huge boost for the team to go into those games having won their Champions League group. 

That's it for today.

See you tomorrow.

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