In a pre-season tournament, Napoli rolled up at the Emirates and defeated the Gunners 1-0. The twist of the knife was even more painful for Arsene Wenger as the winner was notched by Gonzalo Higuain, a player that the Gunners had been seeking to sign themselves.
This week sees an entirely different situation now however, as the Champions’ League kicks back into action and Tuesday evening sees a reprised clash between two of the form teams in Europe as Napoli return to London to take on Arsenal once more. Rafa Benitez’s Neopolitan Azzuri will offer a strong challenge to the Gunners, but fired up by their strong league form and victory on Match Day One in Marseille, Wenger’s team will be confident of a different result.
Benitez has had strong start to the Serie A campaign in Campnia, and his astute signings during the summer transfer window have complemented the nucleus of the squad he inherited. When Edinson Cavani left Napoli, it was vital for the club to invest the incoming money wisely. Three players were brought in from Real Madrid, with Callejon and Abiol joining striker Gonzalo Higuain. Liverpool goalkeeper Pepe Reina was also secured on a year’s long loan. The success of the squad, and the way in which Benitez has blended the elements together is now producing good rewards as they are strongly placed in Serie A and already have a a victory over Borussia Dortmund in their pockets from Match Day One.
It’s certainly true that Arsene Wenger will not be taking the match lightly, and will be aware that his team will need to be on its mettle to achieve the desired victory. As they sit atop the Premier League however, he’ll also be aware that there couldn’t really be a much better time – despite a lengthy injury list – for the clash. With Mesut Ozil apparently fitting seamlessly into the Arsenal structure, Giroud scoring and leading the line with aplomb, plus the perhaps unexpected bonus of Aaron Ramsey’s goals and stellar performances the Gunners are certainly firing on all cylinders at the moment. Not only are the team scoring goals however, they also look a tighter unit further back. The addition of the returning Flamini has given the team security and the midfield the confidence to move forward with the belief that there’s someone at home, watching the back door.
It’s a strange twist for the north London team from the pre-season games and indeed the first game of the season when the Gunners were humbled at home by Aston Villa, with Christian Benteke bullying the centre back pair of Koscielny and Mertersacker. Knitting together with Flamini, the Franco-German alliance now looks a unit comparable to almost anything in the league.
Two things appear certain about the Napoli game. Firstly, it will be competitive, and secondly it will go a long way towards deciding the fate of the group. Should Napoli take three points from the game, qualification will become an uphill struggle for the Gunners; even a point would complicate the process. Given the form and confidence coursing through the team at the moment though, I expect the Gunners to take a victory, possibly by a 3-1 margin.