Monday 23 October 2017

Arsenal must come out with all guns blazing

Wenger warns Gunners against complacency in Napoli cauldron as they look to top group

Mesut Ozil finds time for a smile during an Arsenal training session yesterday
Mesut Ozil finds time for a smile during an Arsenal training session yesterday

Jeremy Wilson

THOSE who think that Arsenal's passage through the group phase of the Champions League is already guaranteed can never have visited either Naples or the Stadio San Paolo.

Arsenal's players, fans and staff arrived in Italy's third city last night to fresh warnings about both their security and the fervour that is expected inside Napoli's imposing 60,000-capacity home tonight.

A stadium that boasts arguably the best atmosphere in Europe and still basks in the memories both of Italia '90 and Diego Maradona can be no venue for complacency.

"It is a defining game," said Arsène Wenger, the Arsenal manager. "It is a decider -- it is to be in the Champions League or not.

"Rafael Benítez has a lot of experience, he is a very intelligent manager, I know he will prepare his team very well. The only way to counter is be at our best and put in a good performance. An average performance will not be good enough."

Arsenal need only a draw to progress as Group F winners or to avoid a three-goal defeat to advance as runners-up, but Wenger's remarks reflect a tangible caution and even unease about the task ahead.

Off the pitch, and as part of heightened security, it is understood that Arsenal players and staff have been told not to leave their hotel unaccompanied. The 700 travelling Arsenal supporters will be bussed direct to the match and a special secure zone in the city centre has been specifically designated for them to safely congregate before the match.

The on-field questions are also considerable. Do Arsenal go on the attack, as they did in such scintillating style to beat Napoli 2-0 at the Emirates, or do they adopt more defensive counter-attacking tactics?

Moreover, amid all his concern at the fixture schedule, does Wenger take the risk of resting key players?

The message last night could not have been clearer. Tonight's match, according to Wenger, is the priority and there will be no weakening of his team ahead of back-to-back Premier League fixtures against Manchester City and Chelsea.

"The other two games are not definitely decisive," said Wenger. "We are five points ahead in the Premier League. The championship is a marathon. We will be in the race no matter what happens but those games will show our strengths hopefully.

"We can't afford to rest players. I rotate a little bit sometimes, never more than two or three because stability is important. Overall, we have no major sign of fatigue medically."

Arsenal also have players ready to return. Bacary Sagna, Lukas Podolski and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain did not travel to Italy yesterday but should be available again during the next month.

It leaves Arsenal unchanged from the squad that drew 1-1 with Everton last Sunday and Wenger unmoved in his tactical instructions.

"We have our usual game, we try to take the ball, take control of the ball, try to play our game," he said. "It is another game that we want to win. It is the only way we can approach the game."

After seeing his team finish group runners-up and then draw Barcelona, AC Milan and Bayern Munich during the last three seasons of the Champions League, Wenger must also know the potential importance of qualifying as winners.

"Our priorities are simple," he said. "For me, the first priority is to qualify. If we finish top it is even better."

Benítez can afford to be rather less picky but he is at least boosted by the availability of Gonzalo Higuaín after the Argentina striker missed the Emirates fixture.

Higuaín was almost signed by Arsenal during the summer and Wenger admitted: "I think he is a player you have to keep quiet. He is very dangerous. The more we can play outside the box, the easier it will be for us to keep him quiet." (© Daily Telegraph, London).


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