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Arsenal scrape through but big test awaits

Thursday, 12 December 2013 - 9:26am IST | Agency: Daily Telegraph

Arsenal have survived the supposed Champions League 'group of death' but defeat here in Naples on Wednesday night may ultimately still represent a fatal wound. Yes, Arsene Wenger's team narrowly avoided the three-goal loss that would have led to their immediate elimination from the competition but, in allowing Borussia Dortmund to clinch first place in the group, they now face a daunting Champions League draw. Barcelona, Atletico Madrid, Real Madrid, Paris St-Germain or Bayern Munich await in the draw for the last 16 that takes place in Nyon on Monday. Wenger had explained before the match how he wanted to rotate key players without upsetting his team's rhythm and so he only made two changes from the side that had drawn 1-1 with Everton on Sunday.

Given the ongoing caution over his ankle, it was no real surprise that Jack Wilshere should return to the bench but this was the first major game that Aaron Ramsey had missed this season. It meant starting with Arsenal's two most defence-minded central midfielders in Mikel Arteta and Mathieu Flamini, while also selecting an attacking quartet who are especially adept at holding the ball in Santi Cazorla, Mesut Ozil, Tomas Rosicky and Olivier Giroud.

Theo Walcott, who is still yet to start a game since his return from abdominal surgery, was again on the bench. With Arsenal knowing that a draw would see them qualified as group winners and anything less than a three-goal defeat would guarantee their progress as runners up, Wenger had instructed his players to adopt their usual expansive approach. They took an immediate hold on possession, prompting a crescendo of whistling and jeers from the Napoli supporters as Rafael Benitez's team sought to play on the counter-attack.

Napoli still created the first clear chance, with Dries Mertens exploiting the space behind Carl Jenkinson and feeding Goran Pendev whose effort was saved by Wojciech Szczesny. Jose Callejon also went close with a well struck shot. It was not until well into the first-half that all 700 of Arsenal's travelling fans had made their way into the stadium after taking buses from the city centre, with reports emerging of some heavy handed policing outside the ground. The late arrivals did not miss a single Arsenal chance, with Napoli initially quick to get players behind the ball and restrict space whenever they lost possession.

That changed in the 25th minute when Ozil and Flamini combined to release Giroud, who powered his shot back across Rafael Cabral. The Napoli goalkeeper god down quickly but parried the ball directly into the path of Ozil whose uncharacteristic loss of balance prevented Arsenal from taking the lead. It was a sign, nevertheless, that Wenger's team were beginning to find their passing range and they continued to control the midfield tempo.

Where Napoli did look dangerous was in quickly targeting Arsenal's flanks whenever they managed to regain possession. Szczesny caused Arsenal hearts to flutter when he miscued a routine clearance straight in the direction of Gonzalo Higuain. To Szczesny's great fortune, Higuain was just unable to react quickly enough and the ball bounced off his head to safety. There was no such concern over Arsenal's centre-back pairing, with Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny again flawless throughout the first-half, with the latter even producing one exceptional run out of defence.

The basic pattern continued into the second-half, with Arsenal's midfield again making neat little passing triangles and Napoli struggling to get a foothold in the game. If there was to be a criticism of Arsenal's performance, it was an understandable reluctance to commit bodies forward and go in search of the goal that would have put the game Napoli. The best chances, then, continued to arrive on the rare occasions that Napoli won back the ball and launched quick counter-attacks.

Pablo Armero got away from Rosicky but shoot tamely at Szczesny and then Mertens forced an important block from Gibbs. Callejon was also causing problems down Arsenal's left and, after getting in front of Gibbs, he dragged his shot narrowly wide of Szczesny's goal. Napoli were now enjoying their best period of the match and there was sudden drama both on and off the pitch. A bizarre Greenpeace protest manifested in a man abseiling from the roof of the Stadio San Paolo and into one of the stands. Amid the general bemusement, Higuain found space inside Arsenal's penalty area after a pass from Callejon and turned to shoot past Szczesny.

When Higuain scored, Marseille were still holding Dortmund to a 1-1 draw, meaning that both Arsenal and Napoli would qualify. It left Napoli in the invidious position of not knowing whether to press for more goals or protect their lead in the hope that Marseille would hold out. The situation was further complicated when Arsenal went down to 10 men after Arteta was dismissed for a second bookable offence. News of Dortmund's late winner in Marseille meant that Napoli suddenly needed two more goals to overhaul Arsenal and, although Callejon scored with the last kick of the game, they ultimately ran out of time.


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