A point might not even be needed but frankly, nobody wants to rely on Marseilles with their wretched European form. It might be the night when they spring to life, taking advantage of Dortmund’s descent in recent weeks, a spiralling of results with which Arsenal are all too uncomfortably familiar at this time of year.
That is probably the opening paragraph to the post had last season’s autumnal form been replicated but it hasn’t which says encapsulates the changes of the past twelve months. Arsenal travel to Naples for a decisive Champions League safe in the knowledge that they are in control of their own destiny and comfortable that Arsène can rotate the squad yet still put out a side that is capable of taking the point they need to qualify for the second round. Times change indeed.
I don’t think much rotation will take place. It is the kind of match ripe for Theo Walcott to return, his pace will force his markers to be less adventurous as well as offering Arsenal a snap outlet for counter-attack. Wenger has used the England international sparingly in recent weeks, ensuring his comeback has been measured and not risk-laden; planning for tonight as his first start, perhaps? Rotation, of course, is not half the squad in one go but managing fatigue and injuries, certainly in midfield where his talent pool is deep. Some occasions permit changing half the team, testing Wenger’s maxim that two or three is the maximum permitted before the stability of the side is negatively impacted.
And the settled side, no matter how forced the situation, is one of the reasons for Arsenal success this season. A settled back four and midfield has been crucial, especially the former which Wojciech Szczesny pinpointed as the key plank upon which the top of the Premier League and Champions League has been founded. Knowing what teammates are going to do, where they will be, that they will support has bred confidence in passing and scoring, manifesting in the ultimate team goal by Wilshere or Sunday’s snaffled by Özil; support and movement. And plenty of that will be required tonight, Napoli have their own motivation, knowing a heavy win will put them through at Arsenal’s expense. A hard working team performance by the visitors will be needed to ensure that they are not pushed onto the back foot too soon.
It is always a tricky situation for a team, knowing a draw is good enough. To play for that seems an inherently risky strategy, one where a defensive bent to a performance is necessary at the expense of the attack. Fall a goal behind and the balance shifts, equalise and revert to type. Perhaps it is why that policy has been on Arsenal’s part not to do so; the side which won in Istanbul, Marseilles and Dortmund was not set for a draw; it was sent out not to lose which is a different mentality and a point Laurent Koscielny underlined,
We showed some good character and were very strong in defence, then had the opportunity to score, which we took. “Tomorrow it will be like that again
For this evening, it would be easy to look back at the match between the two sides at The Emirates and think slotting Flamini into midfield would be enough of a change. Wenger has noted there are no “major” signs of fatigue, a subtlety that notes some players looked knackered on Sunday hence the triple substitution midway through the second half. Flamini will no doubt return to the side tonight and it is a move that Kevin Campbell believes the Frenchman is crucial to any success this season,
They’ve always been good going forward – it’s always been in transition, when they lose the ball, that it’s been difficult but Flamini prides himself on being that defensive shield
It is going to be a busy evening; Napoli have to score three times and will look to put early pressure on, probing for weaknesses with a fervour that would make aliens blush. Crucially, Arsenal have to avoid a repeat of the Milanese collapse and are more than capable of doing so. Wenger used to speak of resilience a lot, as if he was trying to convince the players that they possessed that characteristic when in truth, it was sporadically shown at best. Now it is displayed regularly, it is barely mentioned. Interestingly, Campbell thinks the best is yet to come,
They went to Dortmund and won and Dortmund made the final last year. Why not? A lot of it is belief and hitting form at the right time, I don’t think Arsenal have hit their top form yet either.
In the same article, the spirit of Copenhagen in 1994 was evoked by Alan Smith; the odds that night were more heavily in the Italian side’s favour, Parma were I suppose, the Napoli equivalent of that era. Arsenal are a level or two above the team which won that night. Perhaps that is the cautionary note for this evening? Arsenal are favourites to progress but nothing is impossible.
Whatever line-up Wenger fields will be good enough on paper to achieve that aim and I would expect it to be:
Szczesny; Jenkinson, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Gibbs; Arteta, Ramsey Flamini; Walcott, Özil; Giroud
Enjoy the match wherever you are watching it.