Arsenal 2 – 0 SSC Napoli
1 – 0 Özil (8)
2 – 0 Giroud (15)
Being a Likely Lad isn’t hard in Texas. Not when it comes to avoiding the football scores or being a wastrel either. The football definition is a diatribe for another day.
Arsenal had work to do and carried it out with gusto and panache in the first half, controlled and concentrated in the second. Last night will nestle comfortably amongst the great European nights in the clubs’ history. Not because the opposition were special but the consistency of the entire performance. Having swept the Italians aside in a blistering opening spell, a decent Napoli side were made to look distinctly ordinary by an incisive attack, crisp passing, industrious midfield play and a strong defence when needed. It was, I think, the most complete home performance in some time with a rumbustious home crowd and energetic team caught in the moment, the symbiotic relationship captured in ninety pulsating minutes.
There was not an individual performance from anyone in a red and white shirt which can be criticised. Not that they were faultless – Lord knows young Wilshere was well aware of Mikel Arteta’s feelings after one mistake – they were perfect for the occasion. It was not a match won by a player or a segment of the team but by the team itself. From the battered face of Giroud, the artistry of Ozil, the artisan Ramsey to the indefatigable Mertesacker and the under-employed Szczesny. That phrase encapsulates the evening; it took 75 minutes for the Pole to make a save of significance, such was Arsenal’s determination to keep Napoli at bay. It was at once breathtakingly efficient and artistic.
The mantra of an early goal resonates through football’s history and on a significant night, a significant footballer struck a significant goal. Short of burying Tottenham, Mesut Özil could not have picked a better moment to break his Arsenal duck. Echoes of Andrey Arshavin’s winner against Barcelona resonated as the German coolly curled the ball beyond Pepe Reina’s reach in the eighth minute, following outstanding work by Aaron Ramsey on the right flank. It would prove to be a fruitful source for Arsenal as Özil scampered toward the area and found Olivier Giroud waiting to apply the finish to a deliciously flicked cross. Sumptuous football. At once mesmerised and bewildered, Napoli had no answer beyond sporadic and wayward long-range efforts; Arsenal had the game in that spell by the scruff of the neck, refusing to relinquish their grip.
A new word entered the English language as Arsène described the second half as “handbrake-ish“. You understand what it meant but the growing maturity of the side is reflected in that forty-five minutes. Previous incarnations would have pursued four, five or six even; this time, the squad knew the work was done and contented themselves with preventing Napoli from scoring. If they can maintain that level of performance, progression from the group stage can be all but ensured from the double-header against Dortmund. The away leg will tell us much about the squad, sitting as it does between the visit of Liverpool and to Old Trafford. To improve on the overall progress in the Champions League, the performances in Marseille and last night have to be replicated. Too often, they have come when the damage is done. Four down in Milan, trailing from the home leg against Munich; they were followed by rousing return legs. Signs that lessons of those damaging defeats being learned come from consistency away from home.
Özil is garnering praise but it should not deflect from the platform built by Flamini and Arteta allowing him to do so. The Spaniard’s return and that of Rosicky allowed Arsène to rest Jack Wilshere and Serge Gnabry. The depth of the midfield underlined by the absentees in the stands. Would that the embarrassment of riches was reflected further forward. Arsenal thrived on the Franco-Spanish axis, Flamini subdued Hamsik as his partner’s range of passing opened avenues for the attack to thrive. And when the visitors did threaten, they were met with an indomitable wall as the back four held their shape and position throughout the evening; I struggle to remember when they went wandering, leaving unattended spaces for the Italians to exploit.
The enjoyment of the night is diminished only by the staggering actions of the visiting supporters. The theme of violence is becoming more prominent when Italian clubs are involved in European ties, be it home or away. That fans cannot attend matches safely brings into question UEFAs attitude. Like all authorities before the current incumbents, they hope it will go away, that they can sweep it under the carpet; they cannot. It is time for them to take a firm stand and hold clubs to account for the actions of their supporters. To those injured, I wish you a speedy recovery. To Piebury Corner, swift repair and business as usual.