Arsenal are heading into a run of fixtures that could go a long was to deciding the success of their season, but manager Arsene Wenger was under no illusions about which match holds the most significance.
The Premier League leaders face the clubs expected to be their closest challengers in the next two weeks with clashes against Manchester City and Chelsea. But before that they have a trip to Italy to take on Napoli and try and secure their place in the Round of 16 of the Champions League. Wenger is fully aware of the importance of the fixture.
“This game certainly is [decisive] as it is about being in the Champions League or not,” he said, according to Arsenal’s official website. “The two other games are not as we are five points ahead and, overall, the Premier League is a marathon. We will be in the race no matter what happens.
“We will show our strength hopefully [over the three games]. But Wednesday is a decider, that is for sure.”
Arsenal are in pole position to make it through from Group F, holding as they do a three-point advantage. It would take a Borussia Dortmund win in Marseille in addition to a defeat by a three-goal margin against Napoli for Arsenal to miss out. Still, far stranger things have happened in Champions League history and any complacency could be fatal. Wenger also spoke of his desire to secure top spot in the group and avoid the likes of Bayern Munich, Real Madrid and Barcelona in the last 16.
Arsenal will again have to do without Bacary Sagna, while the match comes too early for Lukas Podolski, who is now back in training following his hamstring tear in August.
The situation is more complex for Napoli, who know that they need to better Dortmund’s result in Marseille in order to progress, while requiring a three-goal margin of victory against Arsenal if Dortmund win. Manager Rafael Benitez, though, is adamant that he is solely focused on what his own side does in the imposing San Paolo.
“I'm so happy to be in Naples playing in the Champions League,” he said, according to UEFA.com. “Tomorrow is our last chance to get out of the group, so we will give everything we can. We don't care about OM v Borussia because we just have to try to win against Arsenal. All our supporters are very proud that we are in the Champions League, so they will be very important to us.”
Napoli lost 2-0 at the Emirates earlier in the campaign and come into the return fixture in far less impressive form. Benitez’s side have dipped from their fine start to the season and have now won just one of their last five matches in all competitions. A chief reason for their recent struggles has been conceding a rash of goals.
Goalkeeper Pepe Reina is a major doubt for the match after he missed the 3-3 draw with Udinese on Saturday with a thigh injury. Marek Hamsik and Juan Zuniga are definitely ruled out, while veteran French full-back Anthony Reveillere, signed as a free agent last month, is not registered to play in the Champions League.
D: Maggio, Albiol, Britos, Armero
M: Behrami, Inler
Callejon, Pandev, Insigne
D: Jenkinson, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Gibbs
M: Flamini, Arteta
Ramsey, Ozil, Rosicky
Where to watch: The Champions League Group F match will kick off at 2.45 p.m. ET. Coverage will be provided by Fox Sports 1, with a live stream available on Fox Soccer 2Go.