Can Arsenal exploit Napoli's defensive woes in Europa League?
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Arsenal welcome Napoli in the first-leg of the Europa League quarter-final at the best possible time. The usually rugged, impenetrable Gli Azzurri wall has shown cracks. Although not at customary destructive best, the Gunners must find a way through.
Carlo Ancelotti's expression said it all. Yet again, the ex-Chelsea boss was red-faced by his team's overall performance on Sunday against Genoa. Despite the visitors reduced to 10 men, Napoli often ran out of ideas when they progressed into the final third. Cautious in possession, they played perfectly into Genoa's hands.
While the attack didn't bite, his defence was picked quite smoothly. Dries Mertens broke the duck after being ted by Piotr Zielinski. However, Genoa snatched an equaliser right on the brink of half-time. Darko Lazovic found the back of the net in style, volleying past Orestis Karnezis from close range. Such is the recent theme in Southern Italy.
Napoli is shipping in goals at an alarming rate. I Partenopei have not kept a clean sheet in eight successive matches since thrashing Parma 4-0 in February. The slump began when they conceded twice at home against Juventus. They collected thrice in Austria when they visited RB Salzburg, slipped twice against Udinese and Empoli.
This wasn't the case in early in the season. Napoli's strength lied in defence. Ancelotti built on the resilience of his backline led by Kalidou Koulibaly that charmed in the final third. They've already conceded more than half goals in the last two months than they did in the entire Serie A first stanza. Ancelotti isn't a happy man.
“ We're defending badly at the moment, even when it was 11 against 10, and that means we cannot control the game. If you control the game, you don’t allow counter-attacks, you don’t let the opposition to turn and run at you. It's an alarm bell, certainly, because if we play like this in London, then we're in trouble.”
The former AC Milan manager is quite aware that the Europa League is the only realistic hope for silverware. In truth, there is little for Napoli to play for in Serie A, with Juventus 20 points clear at the top of the table and a 12 point gap between them in second and fifth-placed Atalanta.
When Napoli's came out of the little plastic ball during the Europa League draw last month, there was a tingle of excitement in the Italian camp. The Gunners, meanwhile, had chills all over, written off even before kicking a ball. Recent results give Unai Emery's men a chance.
It was hardly ideal preparation for Arsenal, though after the defeat at Everton. Despite dominating possession, Emery's side struggled to create much in the way of goalscoring opportunities - notching up just seven chances through the 90 minutes.
The hope will be that a home clash against the Italian side will present an opportunity to take a strong advantage into the second leg, while also getting them back on track for a tricky away clash with FA Cup finalists Watford on Monday evening. Arsenal's form on the form appalling.
They picked just two wins from their last 12 away games across all competitions, including in both previous Europa League knockout rounds. It is not just domestic travels, though, as they crashed to first-leg defeats at BATE Borisov and Rennes in the Europa League last 32 and last 16 respectively, before recovering with victories on home soil.
At the Emirates, they clinched maximum points 14 times and drawing two of their 17 league matches, including that ongoing 10-match winning streak. The Gunners won their last seven across all competitions, conceding just one goal in their last six.
The Gunners and I Partenopei have met just twice before in competitive fixtures in the same Champions League group in the 2013/14 season. Both matches ended in 2-0 home victories. A similar result would plant their feet in the last four.