Result: Napoli 0-1 Arsenal (Arsenal win 3-0 on aggregate)
Competition: Europa League
Date: 18th April 2019
Venue: San Paolo Stadium
Starting XI: Cech, Maitland-Niles, Sokratis, Koscielny, Monreal, Kolasinac, Torreira, Xhaka, Ramsey, Aubameyang, Lacazette
Subs: Leno, Elneny, Mustafi, Guendouzi, Ozil, Mkhitaryan, Iwobi
Alex Lacazette’s superb free-kick helped Arsenal to a 1-0 victory in Napoli as Unai Emery’s men won their Europa League quarter-final 3-0 on aggregate to set up a clash with his former club Valencia.
The Frenchman curled home from 30-yards on 36 minutes to take the sting out of a tie that might have gone the other way had the home side grabbed the opener.
The Gunners were happy to spend the rest of the game soaking pressure from deep before hitting the hosts on the break. A hamstring injury suffered by Aaron Ramsey put something of a dampener on the occasion but it doesn’t detract too much from another famous win in Italy.
Unai Emery promised his side would play to win in Naples and he set the right tone pre-game by selecting both Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alex Lacazette. The other notable decision was to choose Nacho Monreal over Shkodran Mustafi in a back three that also featured Laurent Koscielny and Sokratis. The 3-5-2 formation saw Kolasinac and Maitland-Niles, both rested against Watford, provide the width with Ramsey playing ahead of Torreira and Xhaka.
On a night that was set up for a fast start by the home side, it was Arsenal who looked the more composed from kick-off.
Time and again we focused on building attacks down the left with Kolasinac and Lacazette dovetailing well and Ramsey making nice forward runs to support. On the other flank, Ainsley Maitland-Niles pressed high to steal balls and make the occasional burst. We didn’t create anything clear cut in the opening stages but the fact the football was being played in Napoli’s half was a real positive.
That the Gunners controlled things for 15 minutes didn’t dampen the spirits of the San Paolo, a stadium that started filling more than two and half hours before kick off. The whistles and jeers when the men in all red had the ball were deafening.
Napoli weren’t going to let us have it all our own way and when they broke quickly on 16 minutes Cech had to deal with Callejon’s effort with his feet. Back came the Gunners, Aubameyang sprinting down the right, looking up for Lacazette but not quite able to find the Frenchman.
Milik put the ball in the back of the net with a deft chip over Cech on 24 minutes but the flag of the Romanian official was quick to go up. Not that VAR was on hand to check, but it was the right decision. We didn’t seem to heed the warning. When the Pole darted behind Koscielny three minutes later he really should have buried his header but instead he steered it well wide.
As we approached the half hour mark it’s fair to say the momentum had swung the way of the Italians but we still looked dangerous on the counter. A nice flick by Ramsey teed up Aubameyang who tried an audacious volley that landed straight in the hands of keeper Meret.
Rambo’s evening ended soon after. Stretching into a challenge he appeared to tweak his hamstring and immediately went down. It didn’t look too serious at first but then you saw the pain on his face and the realisation dawn that this might be his Arsenal farewell. Here’s hoping it’s not as serious as that, but it didn’t look good. Henrikh Mkhitaryan came on in his place.
Alex Lacazette, who’d been all hustle and bustle but not much end product up to this point, then came to the fore. Barged over 30-yards from goal, he picked himself up, dusted himself down, told Xhaka it was his set piece and promptly curled home an absolutely beauty. Meret just stood and watched as it rippled the net. The Gunners bench exploded from their seats. The Frenchman was mobbed. It was a glorious strike and one that left the Italians needing four goals to progress. (1-0)
In the minutes before the break, Callejon made a hash of a header and then volleyed wide before Insigne picked up a daft yellow card for booting the ball away. Napoli’s frustration was clear for all to see when the whistle went. They surrounded the officials in numbers pinching their fingers and muttering insults that would make Gomorra’s Ciro and Genny blush.
Unai Emery’s men had a simple task in the second half. Do not concede four goals.
Rather than sit back, we continued to apply pressure high up the pitch. Energy sapping, yes. But also soul-destroying for Napoli who just couldn’t find the space they needed for their intricate football to take effect. Ruiz did blaze over when teed up by Insigne but the finish was so bad it seemed to deflate rather than encourage the crowd.
On 47 minutes Aubameyang really should have killed the tie. Fed a square ball by Mkhitaryan, the Gabon international had only Meret to beat but despite lifting his finish the keeper somehow tipped the effort over the bar. It looked a nailed on goal. Auba could not believe it.
On the hour mark, Carlo Ancelotti took off a furious Insigne who subsequently had a few words for his manager. The cameras showed him sitting near the touchline on his own like a stroppy little schoolboy; one for the local papers to chew over tomorrow.
Whilst that was going on, Xhaka, on a yellow from the last round and at risk of missing the semi with another booking, was replaced by Elneny and for a couple of minutes we lived without Monreal who needed some treatment.
Milik and Callejon kept pushing for an equaliser but their finishing continued to be erratic. Then came a moment of light relief as Sokratis, presumably using the Italian learned during his time with Genoa and AC Milan, spent some considerable time trying to calm down Koulibaly who felt aggrieved that Koscielny had accidentally trod on him at a corner. That the usually fearsome Greek was playing the role of peacemaker was a testament to our professionalism.
Given our advantage, we didn’t really need to waste time, but we did find cunning ways to slow the game down, including the swap of Iwobi for Lacazette. Eventually, Cech paid the price for our ‘dark arts’, picking up a booking as he dwelled on a goal kick. The veteran was annoyed but recovered his composure to make a decent stop from Monreal who, taken by surprise, inadvertently directed a cross at his own goal. It was arguably the closest the Italians came all night.
Valencia’s 5-1 aggregate win against Villarreal means we’ve a tricky trip to the Mestalla on the horizon. No reunion with Santi Cazorla but we do get to go head-to-head with Gabriel and Francis Coquelin; that’ll be fun. On the other side of the draw Chelsea will face Frankfurt after the Germans bounced back from a 4-2 first leg loss to Benfica to go through on away goals.
Huge plaudits tonight for all the players. And a big pat on the back for Unai Emery; it was a tactically astute performance straight out of the George Graham playbook.