If we were looking for the hardest Europa League draw possible, Napoli was arguably it.
If you take Chelsea out of the equation, the Italian side are the biggest impediment to Arsenal claiming the top prize this season and, in truth, it was probably the draw Gunners fans were all secretly hoping to avoid.
But, as with Athletico Madrid last season, at some stage you have to face off against a side of genuine pedigree in the Europa League and this will be our biggest test so far in the competition.
But big ties are what makes continental competition and, if we aspire to get back into the Champions League – and go deep into the knockout stages – Napoli are just the sort of team we can expect to face. To that end, this is a draw we can look forward to with genuine excitement.
But who are Napoli and how have they been getting on this season?
As things stand, they currently sit in second place in the Italian top tier, with only Juventus ahead of them, some 18 points clear.
While, at first glance, that seems a ridiculous gap (and it is) you have to bear in mind that Serie A hasn’t been competitive for the last decade. Juventus have risen to the top just as the likes of Internazionale, AC Milan, Roma, and Lazio have withered into mediocrity.
Such is the gulf between the teams that Juve have won the title for seven consecutive years and look certain to make it eight this time out.
Among the rest, however, Napoli have put in some impressive performances, finishing in the top three on six occasions during the last eight years. Last season, they managed second spot, just four points behind Juve, under now Chelsea boss Maurizio Sarri.
So far this season, Napoli have 57 points from 27 games, with 17 wins, six draws and four defeats. They have scored 48 and conceded 21 goals. Though there are still 11 games to go, a slump in form of late means Carlo Ancelotti’s side have won just two of their last seven matches in the league, though their only defeat in that run came in a tempestuous clash with Juve.
To claim their spot in the last eight, they saw off RB Salzburg, though, much like Arsenal, it was, in effect, by virtue of an away goal. Napoli triumphed 3-0 at home and then hung on to claim a 3-1 win in Germany – making it 4-3 on aggregate.
Likely to be key in the upcoming Europa League fixtures is the two respective home legs. Unfortunately, owing to a clash with Chelsea, the Gunners will have to play their second leg away from home after it was switched by UEFA.
For all their recent difficulties, Napoli have lost only once at the San Paolo Stadium, at the hands of Juventus earlier this month.
That aberration aside, they have claimed wins over the likes of Liverpool, Salzburg, and Milan – and they have held Paris Saint-Germain to a draw too.
Arsenal have a similarly impressive home record – with just two defeats in all competitions – and a reputation for free-scoring too. Clearly, a draw will be every bit as valuable as a win in these circumstances, with away goals likely to be determining factors.
In terms of key men, Polish striker Arkadiusz Milik has been the goal-getter this season, with 14 strikes to his name in the league and another two in the Champions League.
Further back, Italian Lorenzo Insigne, with 13 goals and six assists in Serie A and European competition, has been the driving force in the engine room, while Belgian midfielder Dries Mertens, with 11 goals and nine assists in Serie A and European competition, has been a key figure.
In Carlo Ancelotti, they have an experienced and wily campaigner, who was won a stack of trophies across the continent and has led some of the game’s top clubs, including Real Madrid, PSG, Bayern Munich, AC Milan, and Juventus.
Clearly, he is no fool and, though he has failed to replicate the form of previous incumbent Maurizio Sarri, the 59-year-old has kept Napoli in the top places in the league and kept them competitive in Europe too.
The size of Arsenal’s task speaks for itself. We face two tough games against the hardest opposition we could have drawn and there is unlikely to be a sterner test in the competition this season (and I include Chelsea in that).
The rewards of getting through are obvious, though, and that is what Emery and his squad must focus on in the build up to what should be a classic European tie.