Stadio San Paolo, Naples
December 11, 2013; 19:45 BST
Napoli host Arsenal FC at Stadio San Paolo in Naples, tomorrow, in what promises to be an exciting Champions League encounter. The reverse fixture ended in a comfortable 2-0 win for the Gunners as Mesut Ozil and Olivier Giroud got on the score-sheet. It was a memorable performance by the home side, especially in the first half, as Napoli failed to keep up with the pace and movement in the Arsenal attack. Rafa Benitez will hope for a better performance at home.
Group F has lived up to its tag of being the toughest group in this season’s Champions League campaign. It is incredible that three teams can possibly finish on 12 points by the end of final game of this round and goal difference will come into play in that case. Arsenal are leading the group currently and are in the most comfortable position among the three sides. The Gunners need to avoid a three goal defeat at Naples in order to confirm their place in the next round, while Napoli has to better the result that Dortmund achieves against Marseille in order to go through. This has all the ingredient to be a nail-biting encounter as there are so many variables that will determine the ultimate standings in this group of death.
Team news and tactics
Napoli have made a brilliant start to their domestic campaign under their new manager Rafa Benitez and won six of their opening seven matches. But they have fallen behind the race for the title off late after winning only one of their last four matches including a crucial 3-0 loss against title rivals Juventus. The Naples based side are currently third in the points table – eight points behind league leaders Juventus. Rafa Benitez has few concerns heading into this important fixture. His side have won only one of their last five matches in all competitions and have conceded 14 goals in their last six games. The defence is looking shaky and will find it hard to contain the Arsenal attack. Napoli are coming into this game on the back of a 3-3 draw with Udinese as Dusan Basta’s late equalizer handed over a point to the away side after Goran Pandev scored a brace in the first half.
Napoli are currently third in the points table in Group F and need to better the result Dortmund achieve against Marseille. It will be a tough ask against an in-form Arsenal side, which cruised to a comfortable win against them in the reverse fixture. Defence has been a cause for concern in this tournament as well and the Italian club have conceded nine goals in five matches so far in Europe. Rafa Benitez’s men suffered a 3-1 defeat at the hands of Borussia Dortmund in their last Champions League fixture and this has put them on a tight spot in this group.
Benitez also has a lot of injury concerns ahead of this fixture. Juan Zuniga, Giandomenico Mesto and Marek Hamsik are all out of contention for this game with fitness concerns. The absence of Hamsik will be a big blow for the Italian side in this game as he was close to recovering from his foot injury. There are also doubts about the fitness of Pepe Reina, who missed the weekend clash against Udinese, and Valon Behrami, who came on as a substitute for Blerim Dzemaili. Rafa has confirmed that the duo will undergo late fitness test ahead of the game.
Benitez is expected to make three changes to the side he fielded against Udinese. Pablo Armero will replace Anthony Reveillere at the left back spot, while Federico Fernandez will make way for Miguel Britos. Dries Mertens will start on the left as Insigne drops back to the bench. There is a possibility of Behrami replacing Dzemaili in the pivot, if he manages to recover in time from this injury.
Expected starting line-up (4-2-3-1): Cabral (GK); Armero, Britos, Albiol, Maggio; Inler, Dzemaili; Mertens, Pandev, Callejon; Higuain
Arsenal have been on flying form this season and have taken the league by storm. The Gunners have won 11 of their fifteen league matches so far and lead the points table with a five point advantage at the top over Chelsea. Very few expected them to perform so well for such a long period after their opening day loss against Aston Villa, but the Gunners are now among the favourites to win the title. Apart from the exciting attack upfront, perhaps the biggest reason behind their success so far has been the solid defence. The Gunners have conceded just 11 goals in the league so far and statistically have the best defence in the league. Mertesacker and Koscielny has formed formidable pairing, while Szczesny has improved by leaps and bounds. Arsenal have kept seven clean-sheets in their last ten matches in all competitions. Arsene Wenger’s men are coming into this game on the back of an exciting 1-1 draw with Everton as Mesut Ozil’s opener was cancelled out by on-loan Barcelona forward Gerard Deulofeu.
Arsenal have carried their superb domestic form into Europe as well and are currently leading the toughest group of the Champions League. They have gathered 12 points after winning four of their five matches so far and this has put them in an advantageous position as they head into the last game of this stage against Napoli. The London side have bounced back well after suffering a 1-2 defeat at home against Dortmund and beat the German side away from home in their next game. Arsenal solidified their place at the top of the table with a comfortable 2-0 victory over Marseille as Jack Wilshere scored a wonderful brace. Arsenal now only need to avoid a heavy defeat at Naples to qualify from this group, and considering their recent defensive record, it should be much of a concern.
Arsene Wenger still has a long injury list to contain with ahead of this fixture. Yaya Sanogo, Abou Diaby and Alex-Oxlade Chamberlain remain at the side-lines, but worryingly for Wenger, Bacary Sagna has joined that list. The French international injury is worse than what was initially feared and he could miss some important games this month. There are still concerns about the fitness of Mathieu Flamini, who started on the bench against Everton, and he is unlikely to start once again. Lukas Podolski is close to recovering from this injury, but won’t feature in this game as he still lacks match fitness. There are also concerns about Jack Wilshere, who has reportedly picked up an ankle knock at the weekend.
Arsene Wenger is expected to make two changes to the side that he fielded against Everton. Theo Walcott will start his first game since returning from his injury, while Tomas Rosicky is expected to replace Santi Cazorla on the left. Jenkinson will retain his place as Sagna struggles with his fitness.
Expected starting line-up (4-2-3-1): Szczesny (GK); Jenkinson, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Gibbs; Arteta, Ramsey; Walcott, Ozil, Rosicky; Giroud
Players to watch-out for: Gonzalo Higuain (Napoli); Theo Walcott (Arsenal)
Prediction: Napoli 1-1 Arsenal