Upon the draw for the Champions League, some took to describing Arsenal’s group as the ‘group of death’ after they were drawn against last season’s finalists Borussia Dortmund, Napoli and Olympique du Marseille.
The Gunners’ 2-1 victory over the Ligue 1 side on Wednesday evening kicked off their European campaign with a bang but much the same can be said of Napoli who recorded a 2-1 home win against Dortmund.
The Serie A runners-up not only held their own against the Bendesliga runners-up but comprehensively embarrassed the German outfit whose manager Jürgen Klopp was sent to the stands by referee after verbally harassing the fourth official after goalkeeper Roman Weidenfeller was dismissed in the first half.
Napoli not only won the game but they won it on style – a poached goal from Gonzalo Higuain instinctively found the back of the net from an inswinging free kick in the first half and Naples-born youngster Lorenzo Insigne fired a free kick of Lionel Messi quality to put the game to bed.
An own goal from Camilo Zuniga couldn’t spoil the party anymore than to give Dortmund consolation and, in the end, the Italian’s ended the first week of the Champions League joint-top of Group F with the Gunners.
There are still five games to play, of course, and 15 points to play for and by no means will Dortmund roll over and play dead after making it to the final last term but their defeat does raise some questions and shift the goalposts somewhat with regard to whom exactly are the favourites to qualify from the ‘group of death’?
Arsenal’s over the underdogs of the group won’t have raised too many eyebrows on the continent, especially given their impeccable record under Arsene Wenger, having made it out of the group stages every year for a decade now.
Napoli’s pedigree is a little less impressive – the Italians have never won the European Cup or Champions League, their only continental honour is one UEFA Cup back in 1989 and, domestically, they haven’t been crowned Italian champions since 1990; in fact they have placed outside the top three in Serie A in 9 out of the last 10 campaigns since then.
But they should not be underestimated after having undergone something of a transformation this summer – the arrival of Rafael Benitez is, despite the departure of top scorer Edinson Cavani, a huge boost to the club as is the signing of Higuain.
Napoli perhaps have more dangermen than Dortmund do this term which is another important factor in the Champions League – Napoli arguably have more players that can hurt Arsenal than Dortmund do after letting Mario Gotze abscond.
22-year-old local boy Insigne is one of the most promising prospects in Italy - he’s scored two goals and made two assists in just five appearances for Napoli so far this season and he’ll be a real danger to Arsenal, as they will know full well from his performance against them in the Emirates Cup this summer.
Pepe Reina has also linked up with his former boss at Anfield on a season-long loan from Liverpool, whilst defender Raul Albiol arrived from Real Madrid to partner Miguel Britos in central defence with an aging Christian Maggio on the right side of the backline.
Their midfielders Valon Behrami, Gokhan Inler, and Marek Hamsik can be deadly if you give them any time and space on the ball, whilst widemen Dries Martens, Jose Maria Callejon stretch the play and Goran Pandev remains a class act in behind the striker.
Two of Dortmund’s most dangerous players have either left or are preparing to leave – star striker Robert Lewandowski has made it abundantly clear he wishes to join Gotze at Bundesliga champions Bayern Munich as soon as humanly possible which leave Klopp with the likes of Marco Reus and Kevin Grosskreutz, as his main attacking options along with new signings Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Henrikh Mkhitaryan who are still adjusting somewhat, who despite some impressive Bundesliga displays did not show their potential against Napoli.
However, the German giants do have a very durable and usually impenetrable backline and holding midfield in Mats Hummels, Neven Subotic, Marcel Schmelzer, and Lukasz Piszczek sitting behind a combination of Sven Bender, Sebastian Kehl, Nuri Sahin or Ilkay Gundogan.
Who knows who is the most dangerous – it would be foolish to write the German’s off after one bad performance and one bad result away from home but, you have to give credit where it’s due, Benitez’ men completely stunned Dortmund and look every bit the favourites of the group now but, alas, at least Arsenal will know now what to expect and they won’t be caught unprepared as Dortmund were on Wednesday.
image: © luigig