Full-time: Arsenal 2-0 Napoli
Arsenal get just reward for a marvellous first-half performance; and Napoli for a truly dire display. Ozil and Ramsey were imperious; Ozil and Giroud grabbed the goals.
90 min: Arsenal's best move of the second half sees Gibbs, Wilshere and Ozil swap nifty passes ... but again Napoli manage to pull themselves together just in time to block the shot. This time it was Wilshere's effort that was charged dow n at the edge of the box.
88 min: Arsenal sub: Ramsey off to a huge ovation, which is right and proper given his first-half performance; Monreal trots on, to somewhat less acclaim.
87 mn: Gibbs has had a briliant season so far but been quiet tonight. He has, however, just got involved in a fine attack and may even have notched a third goal if he'd fancied using his right foot - instead he tried to manoeuvre the ball on to his left and that gave Napoli a chance to ambush him.
84 min: Dortmund are now 3-0 up. Arsenal could have been too if they really wanted it, but in this second half they've been content with the knowledge that Napoli were never going to bother them.
82 min: Napoli sub, for all the good it'll do: Albiol off, Fernandez on.
80 min: Lovely work by Giroud, who killed a lofted pass from Arteta and then held off two opponents before recycling the ball nicely. Arsenal seeing the game out serenly.
77 min: Napoli sub: Zapata on, Callejon off.
76 min: A great close-range save by Reina denies Koscielny after Arteta flicked on a dainty cross by Ozil. "Evening squire," begins Nigel Coen. "I hate to get into counterfactuals, but I almost wish Higuain was playing just to prove a point. Reading your MBM eloquence, it doesn't seem like he would have made a blind bit of difference to Napoli's chances. Is this the same Napoli that have deigns on the Scudetta? I do wish them well, just not for the second leg."
73 min: Mertens delivers an out-swinging corner from the right. But it cannot escape Mertersacker, who tonks it downfield.
71 min: A shot on target for Napoli. A weak, harmless shot by Insigne that Szczesny saves without having to open his eyes. "Not sure I care if Spurs fans soften on Arsenal but I would like to thank them," barfs Michael Bertin. "This whole Negative Spiral thing seems to be working out pretty well. But in the spirit of fair play, good luck to them in their Thursday night match against FC Vowel Deficiency."
68 min: There's a jubliant atmopshere at the Emirates, where the locals are running their full repertoire of songs at an unusually high volume. And they nearly had another goal to cheer just now, but Sagna's inviting cross from the right proved jsut too high for Giroud.
66 min: The sting has gone right out of this game. Arsenal feel invulnerable and Napoli are doing nothing to suggest they are wrong. Elsewhere, Reus has made it 2-0 to Dortmund in the other game in this group.
64 min: Behrami inadvertently nuts Giroud. There'll be a pause while the Frenchman gets a sponge to the face. Don't forget behind the ears, doc. "As an Arsenal supporter I’d like to respectfully ask that Spurs continue to hate us because when the wheels fall off of the fantastic run we are on, all we have to look forward to is St. Totteringham’s day," pleads Michael Kruse. "Even if we’ve had to bite our nails on the last few weeks of the season the last couple years wondering if it was going to be celebrated at all."
63 min: After enduring a spell of Napoli pressure, Arsenal re-assert themselves. Giroud wins a corner, but before it can be taken Wenger makes a change: Rosicky off, Wilshere on.
61 min: Napoli sub: Pandev off, Mertens on.
60 min: Insigne curls a reasonable effort just over from 20 yards.
58 min: Ozil delivers an in-swinging freekick from the right. Mertersacker misses it ... and the goalkeeper jsut about manages to cut it out. Arteta has rejoined the action, by the way.
57 min: Szczesny gets involved in the game for almost the first time, loping off his line to claim a corner under pressure from Britos.
56 min: Arsenal appear to be taking a little rest at the moment, allowing Napoli to knock it around impotent for a while. "I have to agree with the half-time comments from Peter Crosby," discloses Kistaps Paddock. "I'm a Spurs fan, and I have to say that I'm really impressed with the Gunners this season. Chelsea can go do one, but my feelings towards Arsenal are softening, because they're doing something really special at the moment."
52 min: With Arsenal still down to 10 men, Napoli attempt to take advantage. But all they can muster is a lamentable 30-yard shot from Inler.
50 min: Pandev and Arteta challenge for a high ball and clunk into each other ... and then Pandev falls down on to Arteta's back, which looked sore, as does the cut on his forehead, incurred during the original clash. The Spaniard goes off for a rub-down.
48 mins: A Flamini slip enables Callejon to go running towarads the box. But it is a sign of how well Arsenal have played and how rubbish Napoli have been that the Frenchman manages to get up, chase back and help himself to the ball before Callejon can do anything with it.
47 min: Arsenal nearly go three up! Giroud, if you don't mind, danced down the right and jiggled his way into the box before cutting the ball back from the by-line. It got a nick off Britos but sat up nicely for Rosicky, who came in running at speed .... but failed to connect from three yards out!
46 min: The teams are back on the pitch, with Ramsey among them. Napoli kick-off.
A Spurs fan for turning ...
"This might not be a very popular feeling amongst my Spurs compatriots, but Arsenal are looking excellent this season," announces Peter Crosby. "As much as I appreciate local rivalry, I prefer scintillating football and good sportsmanship, and as such have transferred most of my rivalry-hatred for Chelsea, where beautiful football is in short supply, and sportsmanship even less so. Although I'll admit I sometimes relish it, I also feel a little sorry for Wenger when his teams show brittleness, and fans and media poke fun at him. He's a proud and intelligent man who deserves better. Meanwhile, Mourinho's consistently despicable acts earn him "love" (his words admittedly) from a staggeringly awful group of fans and a horribly mismanaged club."
Half-time: Arsenal 2-0 Napoli
A wonderful first-half display by Wenger's team. Speed of thought and movement, precision of execution. Napoli have been an utter shower. "I've just counted four Arsenal scarves and shirts on my way back from dropping kid to school in, erm, sleepy Edmonton, Canada," announces Michelle PetersJones, attesting to the power of Mertersacker Mania.
44 min: Ramsey appears to have picked up a groin strain. He's looking decidedly uncomfortable - it would be a pity if he didn't come out for the second period as he and Ozil have been the classiest individuals in an excellent team performance so far.
42 min: Magical turns by Ozil, who conjurs space where there was none. A mini-Big Bang right there. He then feeds Ramsey, who tries to gfet off a shot but his crowded out by panicking Napoli defenders.
40 min: Ozil skitters down the right and digs out a decent cross ... that's just too high for Giroud.
37 min: Hamsik tries to slalom his way into the box. He did well to beat two men but let the ball ran away from him when confronted by Sagna.
34 min: They way Arsenal are playing tonight? Ruud Gullit would surely call it sexy. "As a German I am absolutely delighted to see özil doing well at Arsenal," hurrash David Lukas Wachter. "They are a much more likeable club than Real. I wonder how many Arsenal shirts one will see in Germany in the future." How many do you see now? Is the country not in the fevered grip of Mertersacker Mania?
32 min: Beauitful turn by Ramsey to make a fool of Inler and slip a ball through to Ozil in the box. The German tries to complete the one-two but Napoli gather themselves sufficiently to intercept. "Something to bear in mind about Ozil signing for Arsenal is the fact that he's put them on the map as a footballing power," warbles Ben Simmons. "I'm on the other side of the world in Colombia right now and talking to locals, or overhearing people on buses, people are talking about Arsenal and Ozil all the time (more than you'd imagine). That kind of renewed popularity can only be promising for bringing in future signings etc. And yes, I am showing off." You call that showing off? You think I can't eavesdrop on fellow bus passengers?
30 min: Napoli loft a diagonal freekick into the Arsenal box. After a spot of head tennis, Albiol commits a foul and allows Arsenal to clear. Meanwhile, in tonight's other match in this group, Robert Lewandowski has put Dortmund 1-0 up at home to Marseille.
27 min: Freekick to Napoli, 29 yards out. Callejon tries to bend it around the wall ... but it doesn't bend. It's a joke with no punchline, which, of course, is not a joke at all. Just a waste of time.
25 min: Splendid play by Arsenal, awful by Napoli, who are looking utterly outclassed. Ramsey and Ozil swapped delightful passes in midfield before Sagna floated a ball across to Giroud, who took it down and t hen let fly from a tight angle 10 yards out. Blocked.
24 min: Albiol is harried into coughing up possession inside his own half and Ramsey suddenly has a chance to surge towards the box. There is a clear shooting opportunity but he decides to try to beat the last man instead ... and has the ball nicked off him at the edge of the area.
22 min: Insgine wins a corner as Napoli continue to exert pressure. Arsenal are dreadfully neligent from the corner, Koscielny and Sagna dozing as Britos meets it eight yards out. Fortunately for the hosts, the Uruguayan nods high and wide.
20 min: Napoli have locataed their mojo. For the first time in the game they pop the ball about a bit, and even threaten to enter Arsenal's box. But Sagna sees off Zuniga.
18 min: A shot for Napoli! A desperate, wayward long-range shot by Insigne into the stands, but a shot nonetheles. Perhaps Rafa is waiting for his team to go 3-0 down before springing Dietmar Hamann at half-time?
So far this has been a reversal of the pre-season match between these sides at the same stadium: then Napoli hurtled into a two-goal lead but were pegged back late on by Arsenal. In terms of tonight's match that means, well, absolutely nothing.
GOAL! Arsenal 2-0 Napoli (Giroud 15)
Ozil the creator, skedaddling his way along the right by-line and then pulling it back for Giroud to slam into the net from close range. It's easy for Arsenal!
14 min: At first it looked like Napoli were sitting back, coiled like serpents ready to spring forward. But it turns out they're jsut being forced back by Arsenal. They just can't get out. Even when they win the ball the hosts seize it back before Napoli even make it out of their half.
12 min: Arsenal's midfield are passing too crisply and moving to freely for Napoli, who are currently flatter than old cola.
10 min: Arsenal are purring. Ramsey collects the ball again on the right and plays a slide-rule pass across to Flamini, who has a bang from 20 yards. Straight at Reina.
GOAL! Arsenal 1-0 Napoli (Ozil 8)
Superb goal! Giroud played a dinky ball through to Ramsey, who was on the run down the right. The Welshman sized up his options and pulled a nice low cross to the edge of the box, where Ozil arrived and placed an exquisite shot into the top corner!
5 min: It's all Arsenal and they're playing with admirable fizz and pep, which makes them sound like a breakfast cereal, yet, for now, there is nothing flaky about them. Rosicky races into the left-hand side of the box to collect a smart ball from Ozil, but, as with Sagna earlier, his cross is delfected out for a corner. Which again yields nowt.
3 min: Arsenal continue to circulate the ball nicely and Flamini eventually gets Sagna in behind the Neopolitan defence. Sagna's cross is deflected out for a corner, which Napoli clear. So far the visitors are conforming to the Benitez mould, sitting deep and compact early doors. "What was Simon thinking?" thunders Martin Parker. "The monotony of such a question when the real question went begging. There are 7 participants in the match with a 'Z' in their surnames, including the ref. If you include both in Szczesny's name that's EIGHT. Is this some kinda record for a Tuesday night in London?"
1 min: Off we go. Arsenal knock the ball arond for 63 seconds, no less, before Napoli get a touch.
Seen as how it is now mandatory to provide in-depth analysis of the pre-match formalities, I must inform you that Wenger and Benitezs enjoyed a warm hand-shake prior to kick-off. Read into that what you must. "Surely Manchester United have had six Ys in one team at some stage," stamm,ers Richard Woods. "I give you Rooney, Cleverley, Nany, Van Persey, Giggsy and Scholesy."
Out strut the players, Arsenal in their traditional Rotheram jerseys and Napoli in slinky black and turquoise numbers.
"Wenger is going with five out-and-out midfielders," analyses WIlliam Marzouk. "Guess he doesn't have much of a choice with Walcott and Podolski injured. Will be up to Gibbs and Sagna to provide width. And Ramsey to provide goal threat. He's the only goal scorer out there aside from Giroud. With what we know about Rafa, could be a cagey affair like you said." Ozil and Rosicky carry a goal threat too.
OK, Emirates, your challenge tonight is to come within 1,000 decibels of this:
The worst question
Yes, Simon McMahon has come up with what I hold to be the worst question ever submitted to a minute-by-minute match report. "I see that Arsenal have four players in their starting XI whose surname ends in Y. Is this a Champions League record?" he asks without shame. "I don't know" is the answer and it shall remain so. By the way, Simon, I am led to believe that no fewer than five members of Red Star Belgrade's 1991 title-winning squad had green toothbrushes, a tally that was not surpassed until seven FC Honka players bought two each ahead of their 2009 La Manga Cup triumph. ' Sake.
A boost for Arsenal as Higuain has not overcome thigh-knack. So the line-ups are:
Arsenal: Szczesny, Sagna, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Gibbs, Arteta, Flamini, Ramsey, Rosicky, Giroud, Ozil.
Subs: Fabianski, Vermaelen, Wilshere, Monreal, Bendtner, Jenkinson, Gnabry.
Napoli: Reina, Mesto, Albiol, Britos, Zuniga, Behrami, Inler, Callejon, Hamsik, Insigne, Pandev.
Subs: Rafael Cabral, Mertens, Dzemaili, Fernandez, Armero, Cannavaro, Zapata.
Referee: Milorad Mazic (Serbia)
“Arsène Who?” was the headline just over 17 years ago when Arsenal looked beyond the British Isles for a manager* but the more pressing question now is “How, Arsène, how?” Yes, how are Arsenal ever going to win the Champions League? Wenger admits his failure to do so is a bothersome gap in his CV and he must know that the path to success has never been as arduous as it is this season. This is certainly the most difficult group that Arsenal have been cast into since Uefa abolished the second group stage a decade ago, even more difficult than the one that the Invincibles struggled to find a way through. Dortmund, Marseille and tonight.s opponents, Napoli, are all capable of finishing above Arsenal, who, of course, are also capable of finishing above them. A Group of Death? No, this is a Group of Life, which is all too rare in the Champions League, where dead certainties are too commonplace. So bring it on.
Mind you, the fear ahead of tonight's match is that Rafael Benitez, having banked three points at home to Dortmund, may succumb to the temptation to play cagey, knowing an away draw would keep Napoli nicely on course for the next round. But that's a dicey ploy and, given that Arsenal may well attack with giddy abandon, going for a killer counter-attacking victory here could be a less risky option. Bring it!
*Of course, the English media knew full well who Wenger was because, years before he came to Arsenal, they had made a habit of taking quotes from him to bash England manager Bobby Robson for shunning Glenn Hoddle** – but that's how Fleet Street worked back then, folks, and oh how times have changed.
**Isn't it amusing to think that, for much of his time at Arsenal, Wenger has been accused of distrusting English players when he nurtured England's finest playmaker much more than the national team ever did.