Arsenal enter their crucial Champions League clash with Napoli on Tuesday hoping for further inspiration from a former Real Madrid star, while being all-too aware of the need to ensure it’s a quiet evening for another who got away. Since his arrival, Mesut Ozil has enlivened Arsene Wenger’s side and added a much-needed sparkle of world-class quality to their lineup. The German has been a key part of an encouraging start to the season that means Arsenal go into their next encounter at the Emirates in far better spirits than when they were thrust into a “group of death,” also featuring Borussia Dortmund and Marseille, a month ago.
After a summer of bold statements about Arsenal’s ability to compete in the transfer market, it appeared as it would be another transfer window of financial prudence trumping the realization on the pitch that the squad needed dramatic investment to once again challenge for silverware. And Gonzalo Higuain looked set to become a symbol of the club’s failings.
The Argentinian striker had appeared on his way to the Emirates before he became the latest name to slip away. The Gunners dallied over meeting Real Madrid’s asking price and Napoli swooped. The thought of then potentially being a victim of Higuain’s in the Champions League was doubtless almost too much for Arsenal fans to bear.
A 3-1 opening day home defeat to Aston Villa led to boos and talk of crisis. Yet, despite its paper-thin squad, or perhaps in part because of the continuity it brought, Arsenal recomposed and on deadline day the club obliterated its transfer record to, for the first time in years, sign a player who would be welcomed into any squad in the world. With Ozil settling in straight away, Arsenal have won nine matches in succession to take them top of the Premier League and begin their Champions League campaign with a potentially vital 2-1 win in Marseille.
There are sure to still be some boos from some misguided Arsenal fans on Tuesday at the Emirates, but they will now not be tinged with the same despairing longing as might have been expected. However, it would be dangerous to get too blasé, either about the failure to secure Higuain or the challenge that Napoli will pose.
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As good as Ozil has been in the formative days of his Arsenal career, Higuain has been equally so in settling into life in Italy. The 25-year-old has four goals in six starts, including a strike in a 2-1 victory over last year’s Champions League runners-up. His team has been equally impressive.
Following four years under the charge of Walter Mazzarri in which Napoli had been restored to the upper echelons in Serie A, there were plenty of doubts as to what would happen when he stepped aside in the summer and a man well known to English soccer observers, Rafael Benitez, stepped in. Those qualms were not helped by memories of Benitez’s only previous stint in the Italian game when he was axed by Internazionale after just six months in charge.
So far, as he did at Chelsea last season, he is proving the skeptics wrong. Just two points have been dropped in their first six league matches and they sit second in the table, as well as producing an impressive win to begin their return to the Champions League. Higuain has been key, but the two other procurements from Real Madrid, Jose Callejon and Raul Albiol have also made their mark. Callejon, who has three goals to his name, has quickly formed part of a thrilling attacking midfield trio alongside Marek Hamsik and Lorenzo Insigne. Their pace and creativity provides a real threat on the counter attack that Arsenal will have to curtail if they are to prevent Higuain coming back to haunt them.
Arsenal: Wenger’s thin squad has been stretched to its limits in recent weeks by injuries to the likes of Theo Walcott, Santi Cazorla, Lukas Podolski and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. But the Arsenal boss has been boosted ahead of the visit of Napoli with the return to fitness of Tomas Rosicky.
Napoli: Higuain and Hamsik will come back into the starting lineup after beginning on the bench for Saturday’s 2-0 win at Genoa. Right-back Christian Maggio will be the only enforced absentee.