Arsenal put one foot in the semi-final of the Europa League with an assured performance against Napoli on Thursday night, but the hardest part of the tie still awaits them.
An early strike for Aaron Ramsey and a Koulibaly own goal were the difference between the sides as Arsenal flew out of the blocks to stun the Italian side, effectively winning the match in the first half.
Some missed opportunities in the second period means there is still life left in the tie, however, and the Gunners will need to find a little more steel and patience when they travel to Napoli for next week’s all-important second leg.
We all know the Gunners are capable of great things at the Emirates Stadium but no tie will be safe until they can find a way of improving their away form, and they must find a way to do so quickly.
While Napoli were generally outclassed by an industrious Arsenal side, they are unlikely to be as bad again next week in Italy and that is where this tie will likely be truly won or lost. Indeed, Arsenal’s form away from the comforts of home will likely determine whether they go all the way in this tournament or not.
Unai Emery has seldom had a problem bringing the best out of his players in front of home fans this season and there were flashes of real excellence again against Napoli as the Gunners found ways to break a high press with relative ease throughout the first half.
Their movement and pace was too much for the Italian side to cope with at times and it felt like they were full value for their lead going in at the break.
Mesut Ozil and Aaron Ramsey were particularly excellent in an extremely attacking lineup that simply had too much class for the visitors in an opening 45 which sped past the Serie A side at a rate of knots.
It seems unlikely Emery will go with such a progressive lineup again in the second leg and, in fact, I wonder if he chose such a strong team for the opener in an effort to build a big enough lead to try and protect away from home. Given our travails on the road, it would appear to have been an insightful move.
Emery would undoubtedly have been praying for a third, decisive goal after such an electric start and his persistence with an attacking team and tactics well into the second half suggested as much. However, he had to settle for two in the end, although the added bonus of a clean sheet means there is plenty to be optimistic about.
The real conundrum he will face throughout the next week will be deciding how to approach the second leg, stacking his team as he did in an effort to score goals, or opting for a more reserved, counter-attacking style.
Common sense would suggest the latter of those two options but, as the second half of tonight’s encounter showed, Napoli are capable of creating good chances and Arsenal aren’t a side designed to hold tight for long periods of time.
For now, the club can bask for a few days in a job ably done. Better than ably, in fact. The attacking approach was something of a gamble against Serie A’s second best side but it had enough impact early on to strike a telling blow for the Gunners. It wasn’t quite enough to win the tie in one go, but it does set us up nicely for a trip to Italy where all the onus will be on the hosts to score goals.
If we can play smartly in that tie, staying organised and disciplined when out of possession, and attacking aggressively and in numbers when winning the ball back, we should be well placed to progress.
Between now and then we have a trip to Watford to negotiate and a group of players to rotate, rest, and motivate for a crucial part of this season.
We’ve made a reasonable start to things but the job is only half-done.