Arsenal slip up to leave big guns on horizon
Napoli 2 Arsenal 0
Arsenal have survived the supposed Champions League 'group of death' but defeat in Naples last night may ultimately still represent a fatal wound.
Yes, Arsene Wenger's team narrowly avoided the three-goal loss that would have led to their immediate elimination from the competition but, in allowing Borussia Dortmund to clinch first place in the group, they now face a daunting Champions League draw.
Barcelona, Atletico Madrid, Real Madrid, Paris Saint-Germain or Bayern Munich await in the draw for the last 16 that takes place in Nyon on Monday.
Wenger had explained before the match how he wanted to rotate key players without upsetting his team's rhythm and so he only made two changes from the side that had drawn 1-1 with Everton on Sunday.
Given the ongoing caution over his ankle, it was no real surprise that Jack Wilshere should return to the bench, but this was the first major game that Aaron Ramsey had missed this season.
It meant starting with Arsenal's two most defence-minded central midfielders in Mikel Arteta and Mathieu Flamini, while also selecting an attacking quartet who are especially adept at holding the ball in Santi Cazorla, Mesut Ozil, Tomas Rosicky and Olivier Giroud.
With Arsenal knowing that a draw would see them qualify as group winners and anything less then a three-goal defeat would guarantee their progress as runners-up, Wenger had instructed his players to adopt their usual expansive approach.
They took an immediate hold on possession, prompting a crescendo of whistling and jeers from the Napoli supporters as Rafael Benitez's team sought to play on the counter-attack.
Napoli still created the first clear chance, with Dries Mertens exploiting the space behind Carl Jenkinson and feeding Goran Pendev, whose effort was saved by Wojciech Szczesny.
It was not until well into the first half that all 700 of Arsenal's travelling fans had made their way into the stadium after taking buses from the city centre, with reports emerging of some heavy-handed policing outside the ground.
The late arrivals did not miss a single Arsenal chance, with Napoli initially quick to get players behind the ball and restrict space whenever they lost possesion. That changed in the 25th minute when Ozil and Flamini combined to release Giroud, who powered his shot back across Rafael Cabral.
The Napoli goalkeeper got down quickly but parried the ball directly into the path of Ozil, whose uncharacteristic loss of balance prevented Arsenal from taking the lead. Where Napoli did look dangerous was in quickly targeting Arsenal's flanks whenever they did manage to regain possession.
Christian Maggio did briefly get behind Kieran Gibbs only to loft his attempted finish over both Szczesny and the Arsenal goal. Szczesny then caused Arsenal hearts to flutter when he miscued what should have been a routine clearance straight in the direction of Gonzalo Higuain.
To Szczesny's great fortune, Higuian was just unable to react quickly enough and the ball bounced off his head to safety. There was no such concern over Arsenal's centre-back pairing, with Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny again flawless throughout the first-half, with the latter even producing one exceptional run out of defence.
The basic pattern continued into the second half, with Arsenal's midfield again making neat little passing triangles and Napoli struggling to get a foothold in the game.
But the best chances continued to arrive on the rare occasions that Napoli won back the ball and launched quick counter-attacks. Jose Callejon was causing problems down Arsenal's left and, after getting in front of Gibbs, he dragged his shot narrowly wide of Szczesny's goal.
Napoli were now enjoying their best period and there was sudden drama both on and off the pitch. A bizarre Greenpeace protest manifested in a man abseiling from the roof of the Stadio San Paolo and into one of the stands.
Amid the general bemusement, Higuain found space inside Arsenal's penalty area and turned to shoot past Szczesny. When Higuain scored, Marseille were still holding Dortmund to a 1-1 draw, meaning that both Arsenal and Napoli would qualify.
It left Napoli in the invidious position of not knowing whether to press for more goals or protect their lead in the hope that Marseille would hold out.
The situation was further complicated when Arsenal went down to 10 men after Arteta was dismissed for a second bookable offence.
News of Dortmund's late winner in Marseille meant that Napoli suddenly needed two more goals to overhaul Arsenal and, although Callejon scored with the last kick of the game, they ran out of time. (© Daily Telegraph, London)