Rafa Benitez's men face a tough task at the San Paolo, but an effective game plan could see them run the Gunners close for a Champions League knockout place
By Kris Voakes | International Football Correspondent
Rafa Benitez has it all to do. As if coming up with a way to beat Arsenal isn’t hard enough, his Napoli side need a three-goal victory on Wednesday if they are to qualify for the last 16 of the Champions League.
The size of the task, all things considered, is monumental. Since losing to Aston Villa on the opening day of the season, the Gunners have been red hot.
They lead the Premier League by five points, having won 11 and lost just one of the 14 games that have followed. They smashed their transfer record to bring in Real Madrid’s Mesut Ozil, who has quickly become the focus of their slick attack. Add in four victories in five attempts in the Champions League, and Arsene Wenger’s side have exceeded all expectations so far in 2013-14.
At the moment, Napoli are at the other end of the scale. A month ago, they were sitting level with Juventus on the shoulder of league leaders Roma and were a draw in Dortmund away from qualification from Group F in Europe. But one win in five games has left them looking short of what is required to succeed both at home and abroad.
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That needs to be put to the back of their minds, though, with confidence and belief the key factors in the assault needed at the San Paolo on Wednesday night.
Having watched Napoli in Serie A action leading up to the game at the Emirates Stadium on matchday two, the Gunners were confident that an opening burst full of pace and power would knock the Partenopei out of their stride. And so it proved, with early goals from Mesut Ozil and Olivier Giroud handing the north London outfit a cushion they never looked like surrendering.
That said, there was enough in the Napoli performance thereafter to suggest that they are not entirely without hope. While it is true that Arsenal were not forced to harry their visitors as they might have been without the safety net of a two-goal lead, the Italian outfit had enough bright spots to offer out hope in the return game.
And there have been elements about Arsenal’s play, even during their recent successful run, that suggest there are avenues to be exploited. As recently as Sunday, Wenger was complaining to the fourth official of Everton’s ‘dirty tricks’ after a first half in which his side had been passed off the pitch and harried effectively for long spells.
It is true that Roberto Martinez’s team went in to the interval without an advantage despite long spells of possession, but they did show how the Gunners can be stifled. Manchester United may have beaten the leaders, but not with a performance conducive to the task of finding three goals. What Benitez needs is to get his team playing with energy throughout similar to Everton, rather than a hold-what-we-have display.
It is key that Napoli start the game well. As with any big evening fixture at the San Paolo, the atmosphere will be white-hot, and a good opening 15 minutes will serve to amplify that noise. To lose that momentum by not being quick off the mark could be fatal.
Tactically, there are a number of areas Benitez can address. His defenders need to be much more immediate and decisive coming out of defence, allowing the likes of Gokhan Inler and Lorenzo Insigne more time on the ball in higher areas. Too often, the Partenopei are happy enough to take their time building attacks, but time is not something they will have in abundance on Wednesday.
One bonus for Napoli is that they have one of the world’s most effective wing-backs in Christian Maggio. While he may not line up in such an advanced position theoretically under Benitez, he should be asked to do just that job against Arsenal. If the English side are to be stretched effectively, then constant forward bursts by Maggio – as well as Pablo Armero on the other flank – will be of paramount importance.
Pinning back Jack Wilshere and Santi Cazorla by forcing them to track players will also be a key part of stopping Arsenal from playing their own game. When forced to start attacks from deep, the Gunners are far less effective than when picking up the ball around the centre of the park and breaking from there.
That talent means that Napoli will have to be extremely attentive when Valon Behrami and Inler are on the ball, meaning big performances from their Swiss midfielders will be vital to their hopes of achieving the near-impossible.
When Napoli get into advanced positions, the need for incisiveness is clear. If Insigne is deployed in the centre of the attacking midfield trio, then he will be best placed to run at an Arsenal defence that still looks susceptible when its back is turned. With his ability to carry the ball at pace, the 22-year-old can make the most of a stretched defensive unit by delivering slide-rule passes for angled runs.
The bottom line, though, is taking chances. If Maggio and Armero get forward on either flank to pin Arsenal back and stretch the two holders – likely two of Mathieu Flamini, Aaron Ramsey and Mikel Arteta – into wider positions, Insigne and Inler could well expose them through the centre, allowing the likes of Goran Pandev, Jose Callejon and Gonzalo Higuain to make the angled runs required from positions in between the lines in order to pull the visitors’ back line out of shape.
But if they are not clinical when required, then they don’t stand a chance.
With a couple of goals in a stunning success, Higuain could become the new Edinson Cavani in the eyes of the San Paolo crowd overnight. And the former Real Madrid man has the capability of doing exactly that. It is a big ask, but his and Napoli’s mission is not entirely impossible.
Belief, confidence, energy and an effective game plan carried out to the letter could yet get Napoli out of the massive hole they find themselves in.Follow Kris Voakes on