As the final stretch of the 2018/19 season unfolds, Arsenal welcomed Napoli at the Emirates Stadium in the first leg of their Europa League quarterfinal clash.
Domestically, these two teams could hardly be in a situation more different to one another in terms of need for points. Arsenal are currently fifth in the Premier League, in the midst of a very tight top-four race aiming to ensure Champions League football next season regardless of the outcome of their campaign in Europe. Napoli are quite comfortable in that aspect. They’ve lost all chances of the Serie A title with a 20-point deficit behind leaders Juventus, but they have a firm grasp of the second place with seven points more than Inter Milan in third and 12 more than AC Milan and Atalanta who occupy positions four and five.
Arsenal boss Unai Emery was unable to call upon three long-term absentees in defenders Hector Bellerin and Rob Holding, and forward Danny Welbeck. Defender Laurent Koscielny and midfielder Granit Xhaka were both doubts, and in the end it was Koscielny who recovered in time, while Xhaka missed out. Emery’s team started in a 3-4-1-2 shape.
Petr Cech was in goal. Koscielny was joined by Nacho Monreal and Sokratis Papastathopoulos at the back. Lucas Torreira and Aaron Ramsey held the middle of the park, flanked by wing-backs Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Sead Kolašinac. Mesut Ozil played in the No.10 role, behind the formidable attacking partnership of Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.
Carlo Ancelotti in the Napoli dugout was without defender Raul Albiol, while Arsenal loanee goalkeeper David Ospina and midfielder Amadou Diawara needed to be assessed before the game. Diawara missed out; Ospina was named on the bench.
Ospina’s absence meant that Alex Meret was between the posts. Kalidou Koulibaly was partnered by Nikola Maksimović, and they were flanked by Mario Rui on the left and Elseid Hysaj on the right. Fabian and Allan paired up in the heart of midfield, helped by Piotr Zielinski and Jose Maria Callejon out wide. Dries Mertens and Lorenzo Insigne formed a strong attacking partnership of their own.
The First Half
Arsenal started the contest on the front foot, looking to make use of the pace of Maitland-Niles and Kolašinac out wide. It helped them get far up the pitch quickly and stay there for a relatively long spell during which they took a couple of corners but failed to trouble Meret properly. Napoli held out, but they had problems in their attempt to move the weight of the game across the halfway line.
In the seventh minute, Ramsey and Maitland-Niles both tried from the edge of the box in close succession but both saw their efforts blocked by Koulibaly. Napoli got forward after that and Fabian managed to put the ball in the net, but the linesman’s flag was raised early for a fairly obvious offside. They threatened again soon afterwards through Zienlinski down the left, but his cross was cleared by Koscielny.
And just as it started looking like a well-balanced game, Arsenal suddenly played a fantastic team move which involved Maitland-Niles, Ozil, Ramsey and Lacazette, and eventually Maitland-Niles handed it on a platter for Ramsey to finish off from near the penalty spot. The Welshman made no mistake.
Napoli tried to respond quickly, but the Gunners stuck to their task and kept things under control for a while longer. Only after a quarter of the game had passed did the home team start dropping deeper, but even that worked to their advantage.
Minute 25 started running when Torreira took advantage of some awkward play by Hysaj and Fabian and stole the ball in the opposition half. The Uruguayan burst forward and sold the backtracking Fabian a dummy before whacking one from the edge of the box. Koulibaly tried to block the shot but all he managed to do was change its direction and confuse his goalkeeper, leaving him wrong-footed.
The visitors were now on the ropes for a while, and they were fortunate not go further down soon afterwards as they inexplicably left Aubameyang free in the box to pick out the far bottom corner, but Meret made a fine save this time.
When going forward, the Italian side seemed largely disjointed and Arsenal came close again in the 33rd minute as Aubemeyang took advantage of another poor piece of play to burst forward down the left and square it for Lacazette in the middle, but the Frenchman, completely unmarked, failed to hit the ball properly.
Arsenal were playing smartly at this point, and Ozil made the most of Hysaj’s clumsiness to earn a free-kick out wide on the left followed by a scramble in the box which Napoli somehow survived. Several minutes later Napoli lost the ball on the halfway line again and Arsenal’s quick move ended with a low drive from outside the box from Aubameyang which Meret barely managed to save.
The tendency continued, and the home team forced the visitors into mistake after mistake, piling the pressure on, creating a chance after chance. But for Meret, the two-leg tie could have been settled within the first 45 minutes.
However, Napoli had their best spell up to that point late in the half. They pressed Ramsey into a mistake and took it from there, pushing forward in search for a goal back, but they couldn’t find an opening towards the goal of Cech until the very last minute when Insigne wasted a great pullback from Callejon by shooting sky-high from 12 yards. Arsenal still had time for another attempt and Ramsey came close to adding another, but Meret was there to save his team again.
The Second Half
Napoli were determined to show they were still up for the fight as the game resumed, but Hysaj took that determination too far with a series of niggles on Lacezette and became the first player to be booked by referee Alberto Undiano within a minute from the break.
Nonetheless, the Italian team now pushed forward hard and managed to create a scramble inside Arsenal’s box after a corner and subsequently took a few more swings, but no more than that.
They were, however, dominating possession at this stage and now it was Arsenal who had issues with taking the ball across the line. Insigne got on the end of a pass in behind and put it away in the 52nd minute, but the goal was again ruled out for offside. Koulibaly hit a good header after a corner soon afterwards, but Cech tipped it over the bar.
With Arsenal keeping a high defensive line, Napoli tried to make use of the pace of Insigne and Mertens with long balls over the top, but the Gunners’ offside traps worked very well. The home side only occasionally managed to get forward, but they didn’t seem to mind being two goals up. But in the 59th minute, they came close twice from two successive corners through Ramsey and Monreal, but Meret was once again up to the task for Ramsey shot while Monreal’s header went over the bar.
Napoli came very close on the hour-mark. One of those over-the-top balls finally found a well-timed run by Mertens and the Belgian only just failed to make sufficient contact with his head to divert it past Cech. With the flag staying down this time, it was the best chance they had up to that point.
With 65 minutes gone, both managers felt the need for fresh legs on the pitch. Arkadiusz Milik replaced Mertens for Napoli, while Lacazette and Ozil made way for Alex Iwobi and Henrikh Mkhitaryan.
The game sprang alive at this point. Both sides attacked hard. Arsenal came close as Kolašinac broke down the left in the 70th minute. His sharp cross was parried by Meret and and the goalkeeper sprang back up quickly enough to push the follow-up attempt from Maitland-Niles over the bar. Two minute later, it was Callejon who broke down the left for Napoli. His accurately squared ball across the six yards caught Cech in indecision and found Zielniski at a full run towards the far post, but the Polish international failed to hit the target. An even better chance than the one Mertens had wasted earlier.
With 13 minutes to go, Torreira was replaced by Mohamed Elneny.
Napoli continued with their strategy of trying to draw Arsenal’s back line higher and run in behind, and one such move resulted in Rui getting caught offside right before Ramsey blew another chance to put the game (and maybe the tie) to bed. It was a position similar to the one from which he had scored the opener with Mkhirtaryan turning provider this time, but the unmarked soon-to-be Juventus midfielder blasted his shot from 10 yards high over the bar. Minute 80 had just expired.
Three minutes later, Ancelotti made his last move with a double substitution. Insigne and Fabian made way for Amin Younes and Adam Ounas.
As the game entered the last phase, it picked up tremendous pace. Napoli looked to attack as hard as they can as quickly as they can, while Arsenal defended and hit on counterattacks frequently. The ball traveled fast from one end to the other, and while Aubameyang only just missed the target at one end, Ounas took a hasty shot from a tight angle and missed comfortably with much better options in the middle of the box.
The four minutes of stoppage time showed fatigue in the legs of both sets of players, and the tempo fell slightly before the final whistle sounded.
It’s fair to say that the scoreline truthfully represent what the two teams put into this game. Arsenal dominated the first half completely. Napoli seemed completely rattled by the two goals and were unable to compose themselves before the break. They did raise their game in the second period and provided the contest with a fair measure of balance, but the damage had been already done. It’s also important to note that for all the talk of Lacazette and Aubameyang, both of Arsenal’s goals came from central midfield.
On the other hand, they will be heartened by the second-half performance ahead of the second leg in Naples, and two goals are far from mission impossible as they look to overturn the deficit next week. There is a lot to play for still in this tie.
ARSENAL: Cech 7, Koscielny 7.5, Monreal 7, Sokratis 7, Kolašinac 7.5, Maitland-Niles 7.5, Torreira 8 (77′ Elneny N/A), Ramsey 8.5, Ozil 7.5 (67′ Mkhitaryan 7.5), Aubameyang 7, Lacazette 6.5 (67′ Iwobi 6.5).
NAPOLI: Meret 8.5, Koulibaly 8, Maksimović 7.5, Hysaj 5.5, Rui 7, Allan 7, Fabian 6.5 (83′ Ounas N/A), Zielinski 6, Callejon 7.5, Mertens 7 (66′ Milik 5), Insigne 7.5 (83′ Younes N/A).
GOALS: Ramsey 15′, Koulibaly (OG) 25′.
YELLOW CARDS: Hysaj 46′.
REFEREE: Alberto Undiano, Spain.
DATE & VENUE: April 11, 2019, Emirates Stadium, London.
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