In the current format, Arsenal’s 12 points would have been good enough to progress from the Champions League group phase every single time. Yet, in one of the toughest groups in recent memory, Arsene Wenger’s side will still need to avoid a defeat by a three-goal margin at Napoli on Wednesday in order to secure their place in the Round of 16.
Still, everything points toward them being able to achieve that objective. Wenger will have lamented being drawn in a group with Borussia Dortmund, Napoli and Marseille, but his side has dealt with the challenge superbly. With just the one naïve slipup at home to Dortmund as a blip, Arsenal have played as the experienced Champions League veterans that they now are, with a record of making it out of the initial group phase for 13 straight seasons. No more so was that evident than in the return match at last season’s Champions League finalists when Arsenal showed a new maturity and resilience to frustrate their opponents while showing the necessary quality when it mattered.
In a contrasting performance, Arsenal produced their most scintillating display against Napoli at the Emirates Stadium in October. The Italians were torn apart in the opening 45 minutes with Mesut Ozil particularly outstanding. It is likely to be a different kind of display when the sides meet in the imposing San Paulo, but Napoli do not come into the contest in the same rich vein of form that they did at the Emirates.
After a fine start to his reign, Rafael Benitez has overseen just one win in Napoli’s last five matches in all competitions. Surprisingly for a Benitez-coached team, it has been the defense that has been the main weakness. Indeed, in their last three matches Napoli have conceded eight times, including in surrendering a 2-0 lead to only draw 3-3 at home to Udinese on Saturday.
While Benitez can be relied upon to organize his side diligently, the defensive personnel at his disposal presents the former Liverpool and Chelsea coach with a real challenge. Raul Albiol, Miguel Britos and Federico Fernandez are not imposing figures in the center of defense, while their full-backs, most notably Christian Maggio, are really wing-backs who are far more at home in Napoli’s formation under former coach Walter Mazzarri when given full license to go forward.
In attacking areas Napoli remain dangerous, however. Gonzalo Higuain is a name that still resonates with Arsenal fans after their club’s failed pursuit of the former Real Madrid striker this summer. And, after missing the match at the Emirates, the Argentine will be eager to show Arsenal what they are missing. Higuain ended his mini goal-drought by scoring twice in a 4-2 in over Lazio last week. The absence of Marek Hamsik, through injury, is a significant blow, although his replacement, Goran Pandev, did net a brace at the weekend.
They face a tough task, though, to break through an Arsenal defense that is increasingly impressive. Just two goals have been conceded in their last 10 matches and just one of them in that spell was with the center-back partnership of Laurent Koscielny and Per Mertesacker on the field.
It won’t be an easy occasion against a pumped up Napoli team and their 60,000 fans, but Arsenal have shown that they have the resilience to get a point needed to ensure safe progress; a result that would leave Napoli in desperate need of Borussia Dortmund to suffer defeat in Marseille in order for them to join their opponents in the last 16.
Prediction: Napoli 1-1 Arsenal
Sports reporter, mainly focusing on my native sport of soccer, but also dabbling in some tennis and Formula One.