Napoli fell just a goal short of qualifying for the Champions League knockout phase at Arsenal’s expense in what turned into a dramatic final night in a group that fully lived up to its billing as the "Group of Death."
When Gonzalo Higuain put Napoli in front with 17 minutes the San Paolo crowd was rocking, as with Borussia Dortmund only drawing in Marseille, the Italian side were heading back to the Round of 16. But with Dortmund going in front late on, suddenly Napoli needed to score twice in the final two minutes to progress and send Arsenal out. After the visitors had been reduced to 10 men following a second booking for Mikel Arteta, a goal with what was almost the final kick of the game from Jose Callejon was too little too late.
Emphasizing the cruelness of Napoli’s fate, they become the first side in the history of the Champions League to fail to make it out of a group with 12 points. Rafael Benitez’s side will now have to make do with the scant consolation of a place in the Europa League.
For Arsenal, although they avoided the worst case scenario, Arsene Wenger will be less than happy on the flight home from Naples. The defeat means Arsenal, after having done so well through the trickiest of groups, finish in second place and will now face an unenviable tie against Barcelona, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, Atletico Madrid or Paris Saint-Germain in the next round.
For much of the match the Premier League leaders had looked fairly comfortable. The group scenario heading into the game clearly played a part in Wenger’s team selection and tactics. Mathieu Flamini and Mikel Arteta provided a double pivot in the center of midfield, with Aaron Ramsey rested on the bench.
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That looked a smart move for the most part, with Arsenal able to hold tight against Napoli’s one spell of pressure in the first half, while largely frustrating the home side. There was very little going forward, however, with Olivier Giroud having their only shot on target of the entire match with a left-footed effort from the angle which was fairly comfortable for Rafael Cabral, in only his second appearance for Napoli, to parry away.
Benitez may ultimately lament the opening period in particular, with his side having shown little urgency to go about their task of getting the at least three goals it would take to secure their progress. Anxiety on the big occasion also appeared to be a problem for a side enduring a poor run of form. A rash of cheap fouls were committed by Napoli, which only sought to break up the game, to the advantage of their opponents.
But Arsenal were ultimately made to pay for their lack of conviction as Napoli gradually increased their intensity, spurred on by their passionate followers in one of Europe’s most imposing arenas. Left-back Pablo Armero should have done a lot better when he was played in behind Tomas Rosicky but his finish was tame and straight at Wojciech Szczesny.
It was Benitez’s decision to bring on Lorenzo Insigne for Goran Pandev and switching Callejon through the center just before the hour mark that was the big turning point. And with Arsenal’s energy levels dropping off, Napoli went in front. It was the man who came close to joining Arsenal this summer who struck as he exchanged passes with Callejon on the edge of the box before swiftly turning Laurent Koscielny and striking clinically low into the corner with his left foot.
The celebrations suggested that Napoli’s players were fully aware that at that point they were heading through. When Arteta was sent off minutes later, their situation looked even more encouraging.Their crucial mistake, though, was in not being sure whether to stick with what they had or twist and try and get the three-goal margin of victory needed if Dortmund were to get a winner in France.
By the time they were compelled into a decision by events elsewhere, it was academic. Callejon’s lofted finish over Koscielny was of high quality but counted for nothing in a result that both teams may ultimately end up ruing.