For both of these two legs against Napoli i haven’t really felt nervous at all, aside from a quick pang of butterflies in the stomach about two minutes before kick off yesterday, but even that went away after I saw how Arsenal had set up and how Unai has instructed his players to play.
In the first leg I suspect it was the knowledge that we’re pretty decent at home, but by being able to go to Naples with a clean sheet from the first leg, I think there had been some psychological damage inflicted on the Italians. Because this didn’t feel like a team with the firepower that they have. It didn’t feel like a side comfortably the second best in Italy and as the game went on it didn’t feel like Arsenal were ever not going through.
What it shows you is the power of the away goal and Emery knew this, which is why he decided to probably surprise the Italians by playing both Auba and Laca with Ramsey behind them. It was probably our best XI and I think it showed last night because I think even yesterday evening we were the better team.
Napoli looked like a team nervous of conceding whereas Arsenal looked like a team confident of progression and the result was that for the first 15 minutes it was pretty much all us in terms of chance creation. We still lacked that cutting edge around the box and much like a lot of this season that final pass seemed to allude us. But even though we knew a goal from Napoli changed the tie, we kept going forward in search of that away goal and when Laca was fouled about 25 yards out the commentator on TV said it looked like the Frenchman fancied an away goal.
Boy, did he. That was a world class free kick from the Frenchman and left a decent ‘keeper completely stranded in the middle of the goal. The second that free kick hit the net the game was effectively over and even though Napoli brought on an extra forward in the second half in Mertens, they never really looked like being able to better us, to which you have to give immense credit to the Arsenal players.
They collectively gave us the archetypal perfect away game in Europe. Composed, resolute at the back, making blocks when needed, carrying a threat on the counter and despite having less possession, it felt like we were never not in control of the game. Unai Emery deserves credit on that front. He rotated a few players on Monday night, he brought off players on Monday too clearly with last night in mind and even last night he brought off Xhaka and Lacazette, probably with the view that they will need to play on Sunday against Palace.
The only sad and potentially season ending problem from last night was Aaron Ramsey going off in the first half with what looked like a hamstring injury. It was the only negative point in an otherwise great game and the only hope we must have is that Ramsey felt it straight away, knew he had to come off and we have to cross everything that it is just a short term injury that can at least see him back before the season ends. But Emery didn’t look 100% convinced on that and if this is the last we see of Rambo it will be a real shame.
Let’s hope it’s not. Let’s hope his teammates can do the business against a Valencia side who we don’t have the best of records against and have a few ex Arsenal players who would love to get one over on their old club, no doubt.
That tie is in about two weeks time and we start off at home again against Valencia. We will need to replicate the narrative of this quarter final if we want to progress to Baku. But before then we have the small matter of three Premier League games that will probably define whether or not we’re already in to the Champions League next season. It starts with Palace on Sunday and that means that Unai needs to patch up some of his fatigued players because we are slap bang in the middle of a pretty intensive series of games. We play Palace at home, then Wolves, then Leicester but we’re a team in form and the confidence in the group from last night’s win will hopefully keep carrying us through.
Defensively I thought we were very good yesterday and let’s have a shout out for Koscielny how is very much rolling back the years right now. I’d be surprised if he makes the team on Sunday as Emery will probably want to protect him but last night he played every bit the captains role and cleared, headed and blocked everything Napoli swung in to the box.
But it wasn’t just Koscielny who was good, there were so many players, including our wing backs and I think we are starting to see just how good Arsenal can be when the wing backs perform as Unai wants them to be. Maitland-Niles and Kolasinac were a constant threat and helped to pin Napoli back at times during the game. There were tiles when Insigne got in behind Monreal but thankfully that was kept to a minimum and the screen of Xhaka and Torreira did its job for the back three too.
We look in good shape right now and all of a sudden it appears as though this calamitous defence is keeping clean sheets. And just at the right time of the season.
Catch you all tomorrow.