When the draw was made for the group stage of the Champions League, most Arsenal fans would have gladly taken 12 points from the six matches if offered them before a ball was kicked. In most other seasons, that would have comfortably been enough to see Arsenal into the knock-out stages with a game to spare and, in most cases, have them sit top of the group.
This was no ordinary group of death though. Marseille’s inability to win a point, the complete lack of draws and the slightly confusing UEFA permutations meant that the Gunners weren’t guaranteed a place in the last 16 before the final game in Naples. Having dispatched Napoli 2-0 in the earlier game at the Emirates, Arsenal should have been confident about going there and getting a result to see them top the group. For the majority of the game, whilst not necessarily dominating proceedings, Arsenal had control of the game and looked ready to see out the draw that would secure top spot.
However when Gonzalo Higuain reminded Arsenal why the club were interested in signing him this summer by opening the scoring, things got a bit nervy. Then Mikel Arteta got a second yellow card and Arsenal were down to ten men. Whilst the second yellow did look like it was a soft decision, it was definitely a foul from the Spaniard and having been cautioned it was always going to be a risk. It’s just frustrating that Arteta only committed two fouls in the game and got sent off, whilst Valon Behrami committed five for Napoli and didn’t receive a caution.
Switching to having two banks of four, Arsenal just about did enough to avoid the three goal defeat that would have knocked them out, with Napoli scoring a second goal with virtually the last kick of the game. It wasn’t pretty, but it was job done.
It was a strange performance from Arsenal considering that the talk before the game was that the players were just going to treat it like a normal match and go out there to win it, rather than just trying to contain Napoli knowing the hosts had to win big to go through. However despite those words I think the fact Arsenal didn’t have to win was in the minds of the players. They weren’t going to take undue risks going forward, or speed the match up, when they knew it wasn’t necessary to. It didn’t make the game a great spectacle, and whilst the score-line was still 0-0, you could claim Arsenal’s game plan worked.
Things did become a bit panicky at 1-0, and at that point most fans wished Arsenal had just gone at the game at full tilt from kick off and effectively put it beyond Napoli in the first half. However I think there was also an element of the players knowing what’s in front of them on Saturday. When a win wasn’t essential, would it have been wise to bust a gut against Napoli and then be knackered for Manchester City on Saturday lunchtime? It would have made the game easier and less tense to watch, but arguably could have tired the players more before the big league game.
Having started the night at the top of the group, it’s disappointing that Arsenal qualified in second place, but virtually all Gooners would have accepted that when the draw was made. That was the toughest group Arsenal have had to negotiate in many years, and 12 points is a good haul.
The problem now comes in the round of 16. Finishing second means Arsenal will face one of Barcelona, Real Madrid, Atletico Madrid, Paris Saint-Germain or Bayern Munich. Having been knocked out by a big team in the last 16 after finishing second in the group before, the Arsenal players will have to prove that this team are made of more compared to the last few years. Some of the fear factor of these sides though has been wiped away with the wins in Munich last season and in Dortmund in the group stages. Personally, I don’t think Barcelona or Real Madrid are as strong as they have been, even though Ronaldo is at the peak of his powers, and Arsenal know they can get a result against Bayern Munich. Atletico are the more unknown side but have started impressively in La Liga, whilst PSG, despite Zlatan Ibrahimovic and the money, can definitely be put under pressure and beaten.
Arsenal have just about survived the group of death so should believe that they can beat anyone in the Champions League. At least in the round of 16, things will be clearer for the Gunners so they won’t be caught out by not knowing whether to attack or defend, which was their downfall in Naples.