Saturday, 16 March 2019

What can Arsenal expect from Napoli in the Europa League quarter-finals?

Napoli beat Red Bull Salzburg 4-3 on aggregate in the Europa League last 16 (Getty Images)

When Napoli were the first team to emerge from the Europa League draw, Arsenal fans may have breathed a sigh of relief at the thought of getting the Italian side out of the way early.


When, moments later, the word ‘Arsenal’ was slowly revealed on the little white slip designating Napoli’s quarter-final opponents, the most common reactions would have been low groans, facepalms and that sort of slow, inwards folding motion that people make when they receive bad news.

Of all the sides Arsenal could have been matched with in the quarter-finals, Napoli were up there with Chelsea and Valencia as one of the least favourable. They are far from infallible, having lost 3-1 away to Red Bull Salzburg in the last 16 only to edge through on aggregate, but Arsenal will nonetheless have to be at their absolute best to progress.


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Whoever goes through will be up against one of Villarreal or Valencia, another tough tie. The road to the final in Baku is shaping up to be a long, hard slog for Arsenal, who could be forgiven for feeling a twinge of envy at Chelsea being drawn against Slavia Prague and then facing a semi-final against one of Eintracht Frankfurt or Benfica.

Before Arsenal can even begin to think about the semis, they will need to direct all their energies towards overcoming the team currently second in Serie A. Here’s what they can expect from Carlo Ancelotti and co in the quarter-finals.

Defensive solidity

Kalidou Koulibaly salutes the Napoli fans (Getty Images)

First and foremost, Napoli are a formidable defensive unit. They have conceded only 21 goals in Serie A this season – second only to runaway league leaders Juventus – and despite narrowly missing out on progression to the Champions League last 16 on account of having scored two fewer than Liverpool in the group stage, they had the best defensive record in the group with only five goals scored against them.

Towering centre-back Kalidou Koulibaly is their natural leader at the back and it was no coincidence that, while he was serving a one-match ban for accumulating one too many cautions, they lost 3-1 to a Salzburg side they had beaten 3-0 at the Stadio San Paolo with him in the line-up.

Napoli also boast highly competent full-backs in Mario Rui and Elseid Hysaj, along with familiar names like former Tottenham defender Vlad Chiriches and Spanish veteran Raul Albiol as defensive back up.

Post-Sarriball

Carlo Ancelotti on the sidelines at the Stadio San Paolo (Getty Images)

While Napoli are 18 points off Juventus at the summit of Serie A and have not been able to challenge the Bianconeri like they did last season, Carlo Ancelotti has attempted to nurture an evolution of ‘Sarriball’ since he took over at the club. Still held in high regard among Napoli fans – an opinion he may wish extended to more of their Chelsea counterparts – Maurizio Sarri left a legacy of sharp passing, high pressing and possession football, which Ancelotti has tweaked here and there but largely left intact.

That has left Napoli exhibiting a form of post-Sarriball, with some of their possessional dominance traded for pace, sharpness and tactical flexibility. It has not, so far, been quite as successful as the real thing, but Ancelotti is a shrewd coach and strategist and Unai Emery will have to get his tactical response right.

The Milik of human kindness

Arkadiusz Milik in action (Getty Images)

If there is one man for Arsenal to look out for in the quarter-finals, it is Arkadiusz Milik. The Poland international has netted 17 times in all competitions this term – leading the club goalscoring charts – and has been a constant danger on the left of a front two with Dries Mertens on the other side.

Lorenzo Insigne has been another danger man for Napoli this season, with 13 goals all told. Ancelotti has the ability to rotate Milik, Mertens and Insigne in the forward positions, meaning Arsenal will need to watch out for clever switches in and out.

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