If you’d asked me back in August whether I’d be content with second place in the Group of Death, I’d have said “Hell yes!” If you’d asked me just before kick off tonight, I’d have said “No way.” Which probably explains why I’m annoyed and disappointed right now despite progression to the knockout stages.
Yes, we got through the toughest group and made it 14 seasons in a row in the knockout stage — both very commendable achievements. But everything is relative and when you only need a draw against an average Napoli side to win the group, slumping to an avoidable 2-0 defeat is frustrating.
Winning the group is absolutely critical these days. If we’d done so we’d have been looking forward to a last 16 tie against either Galatasaray, Olympiacos, Leverkusen, Schalke, Zenit or AC Milan. As it stands, we will now play either Real Madrid, Barcelona, Bayern Munich, PSG or Atletico Madrid.
Wenger knew the importance of claiming top spot, hence the strong side he put out. If he was only concerned with avoiding a 3-0 loss and merely qualifying, he’d have given Ozil and Giroud the night off in preparation for Saturday’s massive match — after all, you don’t need goals if your gameplan is just to keep the score down.
He’ll be more annoyed than anyone right now, no doubt about that.
This was apparent when Szczesny started timewasting straight after Higuain’s goal. The young Pole stood with the ball at his feet and waited for a Napoli player to jog 30 yards to close him down before picking it up. Then he rolled the ball out in front of him, and again waited until he was closed down before finally clearing his lines. Wenger was visibly annoyed on the touchline, shouting “Play” at Szczesny as he dallied on the ball. He knew that a loss coupled with a Dortmund winner would be a huge blow, but the players had less urgency about them than their boss.
Both sets of players look disappointed after a frustrating night
Moments later Arteta picked up a second yellow and any hope of gaining some momentum and an equaliser were gone. After a very comfortable 70 minutes where we looked happy to see out a 0-0 draw instead of trying a little bit harder to score a goal, we were now on the back foot. With a little more attacking intent we could have had the game wrapped up by then — there were opportunities to break, as Napoli committed more men forward in the second half, but we didn’t look interested to be honest. We were far too timid.
I appreciate it’s difficult to be in the right frame of mind when you effectively have a three goal cushion and know even a defeat could still earn you top spot. After all, Milan came to the Emirates two seasons ago with a 4-0 lead, played with the handbrake on and nearly paid the price. Similarly, Bayern didn’t know whether to stick or twist when we went to Germany for the second leg back in February. They played within themselves, lost 2-0 on the night and we almost pulled off an incredible comeback.
All that being said, a draw at least was well within our grasp tonight and would’ve avoided the difficult tie we will now face.
One of the most annoying and inaccurate cliches in football is that you have to play the good teams at some stage, so you may as well play them now. Utter rubbish. I remember back in 2002 Germany reached the World Cup final by playing these teams: Saudi Arabia, Republic of Ireland, Cameroon (all group stage), Paraguay, USA and then South Korea in the semis. An incredibly easy route to the biggest game in the world. Last season we also finished second in our group and had to play Bayern in the last 16. If we’d won our group, we’d have drawn Galatasaray instead — ’nuff said.
Anyway, we’re through and can put Europe to bed for a couple of months. Next up we face a rested Man City on Saturday lunchtime, who gave most of their key men the night off yeasterday. Hopefully it won’t be much of a factor, but in truth we could’ve lost 0-2 tonight without Ozil and Giroud, who have played a lot of football recently, which is frustrating. Last season we got a brilliant draw there and a similar result this time around would be a massive validation of our title credentials — here’s hoping.
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