Arsenal were handed a tricky European tie, having been drawn against Italian heavyweights Napoli. The Serie A side finished third in their Champions League group and were widely considered to be amongst the favourites to win the Europa League.
After suffering a 1-0 defeat to Everton last weekend, the Gunners knew they had to put in a much more convincing performance in order to defeat a talented Napoli side. To their credit, that is precisely what they did.
First half blitz
Unai Emery named an attacking line up as he looked to take control of the first leg. Aaron Ramsey, Mesut Ozil, Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang were all picked in the starting XI, a real statement of intent from Emery who is a three-time winner of the competition.
The Gunners were quick out of the blocks, and seized the initiative early on. Pressing high in their opponents half and ensuring Napoli goalkeeper Alex Meret would be in for a busy night’s work. After just 14 minutes the hosts broke the deadlock, after some neat build up play involving Ozil, Ramsey made a surging run from deep to get on the end of Ainsely Maitland-Niles’ pass to stroke the ball into the bottom corner. An excellent goal from Arsenal, who’s early efforts were rewarded.
Laurent Koscielny’s return to fitness proved to be a big plus for Emery’s side. Operating centrally in a back three with Sokratis and Nacho Monreal, the Frenchman’s aerial presence and aggressive tackling often disrupted the flow of Napoli’s attacking moves. Carlo Ancelotti’s men were second best all over the pitch, and ten minutes after the opening goal things would get worse for the former Real Madrid boss.
After winning the ball back from Fabio Ruiz, Lucas Torreira drove at the heart of the Napoli defence, cut inside and his shot from 20 yards deflected in off the much sought after Kalidou Koulibaly. Arsenal had raced into a much deserved 2-0 lead over a Napoli team which appeared to be shell shocked by the quality of the Gunners.
Despite near total domination by the home side, Lorenzo Insigne had a golden opportunity to grab a vital away goal for the visitors. The diminutive forward was teed up in the box by Jose Callejon, but blazed over from relatively close range. Arsenal went into the second half two goals to the good and looking well worth their advantage.
A lack of killer instinct
The one disappointment for Arsenal on the night would be their inability to take their chances. The Gunners had several opportunities on the counter attack but were unable to take them. At half time, it became apparent that Ancelotti instructed his side to go in search for a potentially crucial away goal. Napoli threw bodies forward, opting for a more direct approach, with several diagonal long passes being hit in behind the Arsenal defence. However, the north Londoners stood firm and defended resiliently. Petr Cech, resuming the role of cup keeper, hardly had anything to do in goal.
Arsenal’s biggest chance of the second half fell at the feet of Aaron Ramsey. Substitution Henrikh Mkhitaryan found himself in the Napoli box, after some clever footwork he picked out Ramsey in space who got his shot horribly wrong and struck the ball over the bar. It was a chance Ramsey invariably scores and the disappointment on the Welshman’s face was clear to see.
Late on, Napoli’s Piotr Zielinski had Napoli’s best chance to grab an away goal. After breaching the largely solid Arsenal defence, Insigne squared for Zielinski whose right footed effort floated harmlessly high and wide.
Arsenal head into Naples in the driving seat following a comfortable 2-0 victory. All eyes will now be on the return fixture, as Emery aims to win an unprecedented fourth Europa League cup.