Arsenal 2-0 Napoli
Carlo Ancelotti has seen and overcome most challenges in his highly successful career.
But even the veteran Italian coach knows Napoli’s sole chance of silverware this season is slipping away after an insipid first half and wasteful second in London left them with a mountain to climb a week tonight.
It’s advantage Arsenal after the first leg of this quarter-final.
Highlights of the game
Once this Europa League tie concluded, I don’t know what surprised me more.
The fact Napoli were so off the pace for large spells as they extended their winless run on English soil to 10 matches.
The fact Arkadiusz Milik, the club’s top scorer, was left on the bench for more than an hour.
The fact Arsenal had finally delivered against opposition of some note in Europe.
Or the fact that I had got a rare SBOBET prediction in Europe correct – one I changed on more occasion incidentally before opting for a home win.
Arsenal had started on the front foot and with controlled aggression, aware they could not afford a repeat of their previous first leg ties in the last two rounds.
The highly touted centre back Kalidou Koulibaly made a double block to stop Aaron Ramsey’s shot and then divert Ainsley Maitland-Niles from getting a dangerous delivery across.
Yet there was no stopping Juventus-bound Ramsey after 14 minutes as he swept the ball home unmarked from a Maitland-Niles cutback after Mario Rui lost possession cheaply.
It was quickly 2-0 as Lucas Torreira dispossessed Fabian Ruiz and fired towards goal with a big deflection off the luckless Koulibaly taking it into the net.
Former Sampdoria midfielder Torreira celebrated by holding up a shirt depicting a friend of his wearing the Blucerchiati jersey who died in a recent car crash.
If goalkeeper Alex Meret had not kept out Pierre Emerick-Aubameyang’s strike and Alexandre Lacazette’s follow-up before the break, the tie could even have been over.
Lorenzo Insigne, a matchwinner against English opposition in this competition earlier this season, threatened to bring the visitors back into the equation before the break but could not find his usual accuracy and it remained 2-0.
Whatever Ancelotti said at the break sparked an improved showing.
Insigne actually had the ball in the net, only to be correctly adjudged offside, before the all-action Koulibaly saw a header tipped over the bar by Petr Cech.
It was Meret’s turn to produce one of the Europa League highlights next with another super fingertip save which denied the lively Maitland-Niles a goal.
Back to the other end of the pitch and Insigne played in Piotr Zielinski who prodded his shot over the bar from close range. It was arguably their best chance.
Adam Ounas, latching onto a Koulibaly ball, also saw a shot from a tight angle blocked by Cech at his near post but the failure to convert any of their opportunities was something the Italians would rue as they finished without a crucial away goal – something which leaves the Europa League betting odds firmly in the English side’s favour.
In fact, Sead Kolasinac and Ramsey came close to adding a third as the game became end-to-end.
Arsenal will be naturally pleased with their night’s work – a two goal advantage and a clean sheet.
Napoli will know they are better than this.
Since the start of last season, Ramsey has been directly involved in eight goals in the Europa League (six goals, two assists), more than any other Arsenal player.
Arsenal have been beaten just once in their last 18 home games in the UEFA Cup/Europa League (won 13, drawn four) – losing 2-1 to Östersunds FK in the last 32 last season, although progressing on aggregate.
Arsenal have progressed from eight of their last nine European knockout ties in which they’ve won the first leg, with the only exception coming during the 2011 Champions League, in the last 16 against eventual winners Barcelona.
Ancelotti has won the Champions League three times, twice with AC Milan and once with Real Madrid, but has never won Europe’s second competition.
Unai Emery has won it three times but never been successful in the Champions League.
It’s a busy period for Arsenal. This was the first of five matches in just 14 days.
They travel to FA Cup finalists Watford on Monday (April 15) before the second leg a week tonight in Naples. It’s then Crystal Palace at home on Easter Day.
Next up for Napoli is a trip to Chievo on Serie A on Saturday before the second leg. They are then home to Atalanta on Easter Monday.
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