Dominance then control see Arsenal cruise past Napoli, 2-0

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Was it Arsenal’s best performance of the year? Or Napoli’s worse? In order to get a game this lopsided, it’d almost have to be both, with the Premier League leaders handing the Partenopei a decisive first loss to their season, 2-0 this evening at the Emirates.

The win leaves Arsenal alone on top of UEFA Champions League’s Group F, with Napoli and Borussia Dortmund, winners over Marseille at the Westfalenstadion, trailing by three points.

The Gunners controlled the game from its early moments but waited until the eighth minute to launch their first major attack, a long ball to striker Olivier Giroud starting a Arsenal transition that tore Napoli open for the game’s first goall. After chesting down 15 yards inside his opponent’s half, Giroud played wide and behind the defense to a streaking Aaron Ramsey, whose foray toward goal ended when he cut a pass back toward the middle of the penalty area. There, a trailing Mesut Özil’s exquisite left-footed finish curled into the left side of goal, eluding a sprawling Pepe Reina to open the scoring.

Seven minutes later, Napoli was even more complicit in their demise, with a poor clearance intercepted at the edge of their defensive third ahead leading to the match-sealing goal. On a ball sent back in to Giroud, the French striker found Özil before moving toward the front of goal. The return ball found the Arsenal number nine for a finish high into Reina’s net, giving Arsenal an early two-goal lead.

Arsenal maintained control throughout the first half, waiting for a Napoli challenge that didn’t arrive. Apparently set to play conservatively on the road, Rafa Benítez’s team never came out of their shell, and while halftime seemed the logical point for the Italians to start chasing their two-goal deficit, the plan remained the same. Napoli would finish the match with only one shot on goal, holding only 37 percent of the match’s possession.

source: Reuters
Mesut Özil’s goal, assist on Tuesday at the Emirates helped run Arsenal’s all-competition record to 9-1-0 this season. The team now leads both the Premier League and their Champions League group. (Photo: AP Photo.)

In their first loss of the year, Napoli also played their worst game of the year; even worse than last week’s draw at last place Sassuolo. That 1-1 result, an initial blemish that seemed so disappointing at the time, will be put in perspective by a Tuesday effort that seemed not only poor but unwilling. Nobody could have foreseen such a meek performance.

Arsenal, however, took advantage of their visitors early. Rather than letting a lackadaisical opponent settle into the match, a new, more confident Arsenal made Napoli pay within 15 minutes, with the three stars that have fueled this season’s rise leading todays charge. Aaron Ramsey, the team’s best player throughout the season, was instrumental on the opening goal, with Olivier Giroud rewarded for his part by being set up for the second. And Mesut Özil, whose acquisition has become symbolic of this Gunner resurgence, played a part in both goals, a pristine finish to open the scoring complemented by his assist on goal number two.

Arsène Wenger’s team went up against a poor opponent, but it was their job to make them look bad,. By that standard, today’s win was a resounding success. The 2-0 ultimately flattered a Napoli team who, packing into their end for much of the game, could have easily been on the wrong end of a truly embarrassing result.

Perhaps that mercy was another product of Arsenal’s confidence. Regardless, the Gunners sit first in Group F, their perfect start continuing on a surprisingly easy night at the Emirates.

Europa League final: Man United too tough for Ajax, qualify for UCL

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Though it may have required a minor detour in the journey to the intended destination, Jose Mourinho’s first season as Manchester United manager ultimately reached the promised land: qualification for next season’s UEFA Champions League.

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Once it became clear that Man United’s season was unlikely to result in a top-four finish in the Premier League (they eventually wound up sixth), Mourinho put every Mancunian egg into the Europa League basket, and it paid off on Wednesday, as United topped Ajax, 2-0, in the Europa League final inside the Friends Arena in Stockholm, Sweden.

Paul Pogba put United 1-0 ahead after just 18 minutes (WATCH HERE), benefitting from a wicked deflection off a defender’s shin, and Mourinho’s famously rigid, organized midfield and defensive structure frustrated a young Ajax side (a starting lineup with an average age of just under 23 years old) that reached the final on the back of a free-flowing, attacking tidal wave.

[ WATCH: Pogba gives United an early lead ]

Down just a goal, Ajax needed little more than a moment of brilliance from any number of rising stars sure to fetch massive transfer fees and land big-money contracts elsewhere in Europe, in the not-so-distant future.

That hope lasted less than 180 seconds into the second half, though, as Henrikh Mkhitaryan doubled the lead, thanks to some unbelievably quick reflexes and a tidy overhead kick from three yards out. Ajax would manage just two shots on goal all night (four for United).

Not only did Mourinho deliver Champions League qualification, alongside a European trophy, United also claimed the EFL Cup back in February. With the allure of UCL football next season, expect another busy (and expensive) summer of spending at Old Trafford.

AT THE HALF: Man Utd lead Ajax in UEL final, thanks to Pogba (video)

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After 45 minutes of Wednesday’s Europa League final, between Manchester United and Ajax, in Stockholm, Sweden, Jose Mourinho’s Red Devils have one foot in next season’s UEFA Champions League.

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After a cagey opening 15 minutes that saw neither side create anything of consequence, Man United pulled ahead on a fair bit of luck in the 18th minute. Paul Pogba received the ball 25 yards from goal, took a touch toward goal and fired a low shot toward goal. Davinson Sanchez did everything he could to get his body in front of the strike, but the ball glanced off his shin, sending it one direction and goalkeeper Andre Onana the other.

[ FOLLOW LIVE: Europa League final ] 

Having conceded just eight goals in 14.5 Europa League games thus far this season, would you bet on United conceding an equalizer in the final 45 minutes? Hit the link above to follow along, live.

Valverde dismisses deal to coach Barcelona

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MADRID (AP) Departing Athletic Bilbao coach Ernesto Valverde has been avoiding talk about a possible move to Barcelona, saying he has not entered into negotiations with any club.

Valverde did not confirm reports that he has already reached a deal to coach Barcelona next season, and did not dismiss taking a year off after four seasons at Athletic.

“I haven’t committed to any club, I haven’t talked to anybody,” Valverde said. “I have an agent and there are teams that have shown interest in me. Now I have to decide whether I will take on a new adventure, and it would have to be a challenging one.”

The 53-year-old Valverde has been widely touted to replace Luis Enrique, who announced earlier this year that he was tired and would not continue as Barcelona’s coach.

The Catalan club ends its season after the Copa del Rey final against Alaves on Saturday.

The Mundo Deportivo newspaper reported this week that Valverde has already reached a two-year deal with Barcelona, with an option for a third season. The newspaper said the announcement would be made next week.

“I don’t know what’s been published,” Valverde said. “I never talk about negotiations with clubs and that won’t change. This wouldn’t be the first time that I have offers from important clubs.”

He said there was still the possibility of taking some time off and not immediately taking over another club.

“Why not?” he said. “In the end I can do whatever I want, no?”

A former forward, Valverde played two seasons with Barcelona in the late 1980s. He spent six years with Athletic from 1990-96.

Valverde didn’t hide that he will be hoping Barcelona wins the Copa del Rey title this weekend, which would guarantee Athletic a spot in the Europa League next season. Athletic finished seventh in the Spanish league, but will play in the second-tier European competition with a Barcelona victory because the Catalan club will play in the Champions League. Only the teams in fifth and sixth places automatically qualify for the Europa League.

Valverde led Athletic to victory over Barcelona in the final of the Spanish Super Cup in 2015, which marked the team’s first title in more than three decades. He also coached the club from 2003-05.

Valverde has also coached Espanyol, Olympiakos, Villarreal and Valencia.

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LIVE: Man United face Ajax in Europa League final

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Manchester United and Ajax square off in Stockholm, Sweden on Wednesday for the UEFA Europa League trophy and a place in the Champions League next season.

[ LIVE: Europa League final ] 

This a huge game for Jose Mourinho and United bad coming less than 48 hours after a suicide bomber killed 22 people in Manchester, this game has taken an entirely different complexion.

The mood around the Friends Arena is a somber one as Manchester United’s fans mourn those lost in the terror attack and people around the world send their love and prayers to Manchester.

Black armbands will be worn by both teams and there will be a minute’s silence before the game to honor the victims.

United have never won this trophy and they will have their work cut out against a young, talented Ajax side.

Click no the link above to follow the action live from Stockholm, while here at ProSoccerTalk we will have all the analysis, reaction and more from the final.