Alexandre Lacazette produced a decisive moment of brilliance as Arsenal eased past a wasteful Napoli and into the last four of the Europa League.
The Gunners knew, following their 2-0 first leg victory, that a goal at the Stadio San Paolo would almost certainly be enough to settle it, and Lacazette provided it in spectacular fashion when he whipped a free-kick past Alex Meret from 30 yards ten minutes before the interval.
The hosts, visibly and understandably dispirited thereafter, will look back on a number of big opportunities which might have changed the course of the tie. Jose Callejon, Arkadiusz Milik and skipper Lorenzo Insigne were all guilty of fluffing their lines at important moments.
Drawing no doubt on the expertise of Europa League specialist Unai Emery, Arsenal turned in a mature and professional performance that will significantly strengthen their supporters’ belief they can go all the way in this competition.
Story of the match
Arsenal would have been braced for an intense atmosphere, and sure enough the home support produced a deafening noise in the early stages, roaring their team on and greeting each spell of Arsenal possession with a chorus of jeers.
An early Napoli onslaught seemed part of the script for this one, but instead the opening phase of the game was scrappy as too many passes went astray for Gli Azzurri.
It was not until the 17th minute that they fashioned out their first chance, and it came from an unlikely source. Centre-back Kalidou Koulibaly wrestled the ball from Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang following a corner and proceeded to surge forward in tandem with Fabian Ruiz, sliding the ball across to Callejon, who fired his shot straight at Petr Cech.
Perhaps buoyed by their first real opening, Napoli soon began to ramp up the pressure. Milik saw a goal disallowed for a marginal offside on 24 minutes, shortly before Insigne came close to connecting with Nikola Makismovic’s ball over the top. A rare lapse from the Arsenal defence then handed Milik a huge opportunity, but he headed Piotr Zielinski’s cross well wide.
Arsenal’s final ball had deserted them on their initial forays forward, but it was a set-piece which proved the avenue to goal. Lacazette was awarded a free-kick after going down under Makismovic’s sliding challenge, and he majestically sent it round the wall and crashing into the net. Meret, expecting the strike to dip towards the other corner, was wrong-footed and could only watch the ball sail in.
Lacazette’s ecstatic celebrations with the Arsenal substitutes, and the sudden silence which gripped the stadium, attested to the magnitude of the goal.
Napoli, now needing four, realistically knew they would have to level before half-time to keep their hopes alive. Callejon was at the centre of their efforts to do so, looping a header over the top before a lashing wide on the volley from Insigne’s chipped delivery. In the most controversial moment of the game, he was then barged over by Sead Kolasinac, the last defender, on the edge of the box as he looked to control a long ball over the top.
The referee was unmoved and faced remonstrations not only after his half-time whistle, but even as the teams re-emerged for the second half.
Defending the decision, Arsenal fans could point to an earlier incident when Makismovic nudged Ramsey to the turf in the area, only for the referee to deem the contact insufficient to award a penalty.
Dries Mertens came on in Makismovic’s place and Napoli looked to mount a second-half charge, but they continued to be plagued by a lack of killer instinct. Insigne’s great run ended with a lay-off to Ruiz, but he could only direct the ball way over the crossbar.
Arsenal had a chance to put the result beyond any doubt when Mkhitaryan squared to Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, but the overly relaxed forward saw his effort saved on the stretch by Meret when he really ought to have made the net bulge.
As time wore on, Napoli grew more desperate but no less erratic. A scuffed shot from an excellent position was chief danger man Insigne’s last contribution, and his replacement Amin Younes failed to inspire an improvement.
Vlad Chiriches headed wide from a corner, Callejon’s miserable night continued with a slice past the post, and Milik slipped at just the wrong moment when substitute Mario Rui got free down the left and squared.
In truth, Napoli seemed to lack the composure to score one goal, let alone the four required for a miraculous comeback.
The last ten minutes or so dragged as the hosts sought a consolation in vain, and Arsenal coasted to the final whistle.
They are thoroughly deserving of their place in the semifinals, where they will face Marcelino’s Valencia, who clinched a 5-1 aggregate win against La Liga rivals Villarreal at the Mestalla.
The only dampener on a fine victory is an injury to Aaron Ramsey, forced off in the first half after appearing to hurt his hamstring when lunging for the ball. Supporters will await news on the extent of the in-form midfielder’s injury with bated breath.
But this has been an excellent few days for the Londoners. Having moved backed into the top four with a hard-fought win at Watford on Monday night, they are now just one winnable tie away from a shot at their first European trophy since 1994.
It is quickly becoming a mightily impressive debut season for Emery, who will rightly fancy his chances of tasting Europa League glory for the fourth time in five years.