On Thursday, there was deflation, euphoria and perhaps above all wonder about the splendid absurdity that the Champions League had delivered the previous two days: the blooming Messi, the victorious Ajax philosophy, the CR7 anguish, the periscopic passes of Kevin de Bruyne, the sinking knees of Pep, the defeat of the money league.
Football had indeed blossomed under the spring sky. There was one narrative that shaped a slither of order in the bamboozling puzzle of contemporary European Cup football, perhaps the one narrative Pep, the dethroned uber coach, disliked the most about the entire game: uncontrollability. Football, after all, is a game of chaos, with endless variables. Coaches and players try to control what they can, but Ajax’s virility and Tottenham’s opportunism were simply recalcitrant, and Messi’s genius transcendent.
So was there to be more ecstasy and uncontrollability in the Europa League? The rambunctious atmosphere at the San Paolo stadium, a bouncing cauldron of noise and southern passion, suggested as much. Napoli donned their iconic blue shirts, ruined by neon-green trim, much to the dismay of fashion merchants, but it was perhaps an early indication that they were badly equipped for a clinical and business-like Arsenal, who under Emery showed glimpses of maturity that had been in thin supply under his predecessor Arsene Wenger.
There was a glorious monotony to Napoli-Arsenal, a platitudinous match until the 36th minute. Both teams were wrestling for control of the match. Aaron Ramsey drove Arsenal in the first ten minutes. Kalidou Koulibaly accelerated and Arkadiusz Milik had multiple attempts. In a ploy from the first leg, Napoli played the ball in behind the Arsenal defense to bypass the English press, but with very limited success. An excellent Ramsey became a picture of frustration and despair after pulling his hamstring and had to limp off in the 34th minute.
Two minutes later, the match ignited and thereafter failed to ignite. Alexandre Lacazette was Napoli’s executioner with a wonderful free kick that befitted a week of extraordinary football. He whipped it graciously around the wall and wrong-footed Alex Meret. Indeed, the Napoli goalkeeper was flustered if not completely flummoxed by the curve and course of Lacazette’s ball. His feet were planted and his body fixed. Meret didn’t even attempt to dive. He had simply leaned the other way and could no longer shift his body weight to his left.
That elegant strike should have fomented a stringent reaction from the Italians, who now required four goals to progress to the last four of the competition in response to the English away goal, but instead a flat Napoli surrendered in slow-mo fashion, without much of a fight, without the form of resurgence that had marked their second half in London and brought hope to Carlo Ancelotti’s team.
Long before the end, the Italian coach sat down on the bench with a look of utter resignation. Napoli’s season had ended on a whimper, even in failure. Lacazatte’s goal had silenced the fans, who went from despair to disbelief as Napoli were frustrated in the second half by a steely Arsenal defence, in spite of Ancelotti’s introduction of Dries Mertens. The diminutive Belgian remained peripheral and his entire team was neutered.
Fascinatingly, Arsenal, accused of a wayward form away from home, delivered a perfect performance at a moment when their identity under Emery had been repeatedly questioned. Had the Basque coach with his overbearing attention to detail improved Arsenal? Had Emery moved Arsenal at last away from the ‘Wengerian’ era? In the past nine months, evidence had been skint results-wise of a tangible countermovement to the Frenchman’s deep-rooted influence in North London.
Doubt crept in with irregular results when not playing at the Emirates Stadium, reinforced by a very shaky win on Monday against ten-men Watford in the Premier League, but the way Arsenal dispatched Napoli over two legs evinced a sense of progression — from a barnstorming home game to a measured return leg. On Thursday, there was never a sense that Emery’s team were going to slip up or could even slip up against Napoli. They were always in control, not just of the scoreline but also of the course of the game, something that had been elusive for so many other teams this week.
Updated Date: Apr 19, 2019 10:15:13 IST