One good club from Group F, a real heavyweight of a foursome, was bound to be odd team out on Wednesday as Champions League group play finished with a high-wire tension.
As it turned out, it was the victorious side from inside Napoli’s aged Stadio San Paolo that turned into the unlucky bunch.
A 2-0 win for Napoli over Arsenal was a result the English club could live with, although just barely, but it wasn’t enough to push Rafa Benitez’s club from Italy into next year’s knockout rounds.
Gonzalo Higuain’s second half goal was enough for the time being – it was a strike that would have sent both teams through with the other group match temporarily deadlocked. But when Dortmund scored near the end in the South of France, prevailing over Marseille, that was that for the Napoli, having been so desperate to remain in the competition after such a long absence.
Not even Jose Callejon’s late, late goal was enough, producing the final two-goal margin, but still not sufficient for Napoli.
The night had a certain edge, with Arsenal needing something better than a 2-0 loss to do what Arsenal does under Arsene Wenger: progress into the Champions League knockout round. Meanwhile, Napoli needed to win by more 2-0 or hope for something good from the Marseille-Dortmund contest, and where the pileup of a group table would be finally be revealed.
Benitez’s Napoli had lots of bite, and Belgian international Dries Mertens was on top of his game, with lots of creativity and hustle-bustle along the right for the Italian team. Napoli kept the ball in Arsenal’s end but couldn’t quite unlock a defense where center backs Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny were big cops on the beat.
In fact, the most nervy Gunners moment before intermission was their own poor doings. Koscielny rolled a ball to goalkeeper Szczesny, who tried to get clever. Rather than crushing the ball forward, he attempted a little pass out to the wing. It bounced off Higuain, who was nearly able to direct it into goal.
The home team frustration grew as the opportunity for opportunities diminished, and by the 35th minute Mertens and Blerim Dzemaili had yellow cards, mostly a response to the persistent midfield fouling meant to slow Arsenal’s lethal counter.
Napoli pressed on, closer and closer to the breakthrough after the break. Pablo Armero broke through on the left and Callejon on the right, just a few minutes apart, but neither could do well enough with their shooting efforts.
In the 70th minute, Higuain was set free inside the 18, but he shot high, too.
Finallly, in the 73rd, Higuain had a moment of brilliance. The entry pass was good enough, but the Argentine forward’s piece of technical craft, the spin and shot to the far post at such high speed, was something to behold.
Arsenal’s job got harder in the 76th when Mikel Arteta, having already been booked, collected his second foul for a tough midfield foul. The Gunners did concede a second, but it was deep enough into injury time that it really was academic.
Arsenal: Szczesny, Jenkinson, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Gibbs, Flamini, Arteta, Rosicky, Cazorla, Ozil, Giroud.
On the bench: Fabianski, Vermaelen, Monreal, Wilshere, Ramsey, Walcott, Bendtner
Napoli: Rafael; Maggio, Fernandez, Albiol, Armero; Dzemaili, Behrami; Callejón, Pandev, Mertens; Higuain.
On the bench: Colombo, Uvini, Britos, Isigne, Cannovaro, Inler, Zapata