Arsenal’s comprehensive 2-0 victory over the Serie A runners up at the Emirates was every bit the reply to those who doubted Arsene Wenger’s side’s European credentials earlier on this year.
Flashback to Arsenal’s last Champions League game last season when they flew out to Munich to face the eventual European champions Bayern Munich at the Allianz Arena. The Gunners came into the game off the back of a disappointing defeat in the North London derby and were regarded as underdogs for the clash.
The manager dropped his captain Thomas Vermaelen and first-choice goalkeeper Wojceich Szczesny and Arsenal beat the German champions 2-0 on the night. That game was the turning point in a disappointing season in which Champions League qualification was not assured until the final day of the season.
Despite the fact they were knocked out of the competition, that performance became the blueprint of sorts, the benchmark set for their performances in the latter stages of the season. Following that game, Arsenal went on a ten-game unbeaten run in the Premier League to clinch the fourth pot ahead of Spurs.
Back to the present and Arsenal have won five games out of six in the Premier League since their opening day disaster against Aston Villa. In all competitions, they’ve not only gone unbeaten, but they’ve won their last 10 games in succession.
Tuesday night’s victory over Napoli was the best I’ve seen Arsenal play probably since the departure of Cesc Fabregas – the arrival of Mesut Ozil has clearly lifted the club in an immense way not just in terms of morale, belief and ambition but in terms of the team’s quality level.
Arsenal operated as a team at a 90 per cent pass completion rate in the first half and 89 per cent pass completion rate over the course of 90 minutes, taking 63 per cent of the possession to Napoli’s 37 per cent and by the time the half time whistle went, they had virtually put the game to bed.
Ozil’s first goal for his new club after just 8 minutes and his assist after 15 minutes to gift Olivier Giroud a tap in for the second completely stunned the Italians who never looked threatening and never got any kind of hold over the game.
If Arsenal’s display had to be summed up in one word, it would be ‘domination’ – they were first to the ball every time, won almost all their 50-50 challenges, passed with supremacy, kept their shape and, in the second half seemed to be comfortable playing their game at cruise-control. As the boss said they were ‘mature’ in the second half – this is a side that clearly knew exactly what they came here to do.
Prior to the game, commentators had been saying Napoli would be their first real test – despite the fact Arsenal beat Tottenham in the early stages of the season, people have generally concluded they have yet to play any big teams. Napoli is a big team – even without Gonzalo Higuain – this side had been unbeaten in all competitions this season prior to their trip to North London.
Rafael Benitez is no spring chicken, he’s a top manager and the likes of Marek Hamsik, Lorenzo Insgne, Goran Pandev and Gokhan Inler are usually very dangerous players. They were practically anonymous on Tuesday night because Arsenal just completely cancelled them out. That is what champions do – they don’t let the other team play.
We saw last season that Arsenal can compete with the best in the business – considering Bayern Munich thoroughly thrashed Barcelona 7-0 on aggregate in the semifinals, you have to give Arsenal credit for beating the 2-0 at the Allianz, ending the tie 3-3 to on aggregate - the Germans going through on away goals. It was a close shave in the end.
Napoli just crumbled like cookies this week and you have to think, if Arsenal are capable of sustaining that level of intensity consistently in the competition this term, especially without Santi Cazorla, Theo Walcott, Lukas Podolski and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, if they can do that then they can beat anyone anywhere. The operate word, however, is always going to be ‘if’.
image: © andyjakeman