1 – 0 Higuain (74)
2 – 0 Callejón (90)
Sent Off: Arteta (76)
It seemed like a good idea at the time. A pastiche of Bjørge Lillelien’s commentary, evoking the spirit of famous Neapolitans, a city famous for its poets, composers, politicians and revolutionaries. Its footballers and other cultural icons such as Sophia Loren but from the darkness emerged the name that at once provoked amusement, bewilderment and the likelihood that this wasn’t such a good idea after all. I had entirely forgotten that Bud Spencer was Italian but never knew he was a Neapolitan. When your trip through names takes you from Fabio Canavaro to Sophia Loren to Pope Urban VI and ends at Bud Spencer, it is probably a good time to let that notion float into the ether.
That’s before you consider that Arsenal did not win. And by Christ it was a painful last ten seconds or so.
But does it matter? After all, the objective was to qualify, first and foremost. The second objective was to win the group. We can argue all we like about a goal more at home to avoid defeat to Dortmund but what of one more away? Having achieved the first and continued the European campaign into 2014, are there really any grounds for complaint, especially when failure to qualify was a predicted outcome as soon as the draw was made? That disappointment is registering reflects expectations, of the improvement in Arsenal this season over last.
Ultimately, we can think what we want now – and Monday’s draw for the knockout round allows plenty of time to ponder – but February and March are a long time away. Form now means nothing then; a dip here and now will rarely impact then – if form drops that long it is a slump or worse. If there is anything worse than a slump in form, of course.
So to last night. To be honest there was little between the two sides in the San Paulo. Did Napoli want it more or was necessity greater? The latter is closer to the truth and Arsenal were reluctant to engage in an expansive game, understandably since the onus was upon their hosts to deliver victory. And all the while Dortmund were being held, little incentive existed for Arsenal to become more open in their game.
And then Dortmund took the lead, challenging Arsenal and winding Napoli, upon the realisation dawned that one goal was not enough. More traumatising was to score a second only to hear the referee signal the final whistle almost immediately the game had restarted. It was the moment relief coursed through the veins, no joyous rapture at finishing top of the group but a sense of disappointment founded in the knowledge that a trip to the tournament’s top seeds awaited. Or, as Arsène forlornly hoped afterwards, a touch of luck and the ball of Atletico Madrid is drawn immediately after Arsenal’s.
Post-match, the manager did not hide the reasons for the lack of adventure on the pitch,
We prepared well and were concentrated but we were a bit in between ‘do we attack or do we defend’. It is difficult to cope with that problem. In the second half, I felt that our legs went a little bit and Napoli were sharper physically than us.
Arsenal defended well for the first hour without offering much by way of attack, the only real chance came with Olivier Giroud drawing a good save from Rafael Cabral; the resultant rebound came quickly and at a difficult height for Özil to capitalise on. Replays suggest that a cross from Giroud would have left a simple tap-in for Flamini; ifs, buts and maybes.
At the other end, Mertesacker and Koscielny marshalled the troops and contained the home side for more than an hour, Napoli rarely troubling Wojciech Szczesny. They had their moments, Pandev in the first half and Armero in the second drew saves from the Pole. He will reflect on a slice of luck that he enjoyed as the ball flashed across the goal without an attacking foot applying the finishing touch but Higuain and his cohorts invariably lifted efforts high and wide, occasionally both. All the while Arsenal remained in top place and in truth not particularly in danger of failing to qualify.
That changed as the match entered the final fifteen minutes; Higuain spun and hit a low drive past Szczesny. The match changed with that goal yet surprisingly Napoli did not become more adventurous; perhaps they needed more encouragement? That came with the dubious decision to dismiss Arteta for his second yellow card of the game. An exaggerated reaction from Callejón ensured the referee paid more attention to the incident. That the Arsenal player made the challenge from behind, no matter how innocuous the contact, in this competition, it is the type of challenge which elicits a yellow card. Arteta is experienced enough to know that and in that sense, the dismissal was disappointing, the Spaniard lured into and springing the trap. Which is easy to say for the watching public; for players it must drive them to distraction – another inconsistent interpretation from referees around the world.
And still you sensed Napoli were listening too intently to events on the Côte d’Azur, too driven by Dortmund’s failure to take the lead against the group’s poorest side. And when that happened, they had left themselves too little time to become adventurous or make their numerical advantage count. Arsenal were shepherding the game into its single goal outcome when Callejón got to the ball to lift it over the onrushing Szczesny and into the net.
There is little argument that Napoli deserved to win, they were the better team in the second half with Benitez responding to the stalemate. It is hard (harsh?) to criticise Wenger for his approach to the game. His defence held firm in the first half, carrying out orders as the midfield passed the ball around quickly but without real attacking intent. The difficulty in that balancing act became evident when Higuain scored but in truth, had you been in Wenger’s shoes why would you change anything until that point when the point was all that was needed.
Ultimately, that is inconsequential as Arsenal progressed and move onto Saturday’s trip to Manchester. The Champions League can wait, the Premier League takes precedence for the next couple of months, the small matter of the FA Cup’s North London Derby a distraction between now and February’s knockout stage.