Arsenal v Napoli: Five talking points from the Italians 2-1 defeat against Empoli ahead of the Europa League quarter-final
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Arsenal may have fallen to a disappointing 1-0 defeat at Everton on Sunday, but Napoli’s form ahead of the Europa League last-eight clash between the pair will give the Gunners hope. Islington Gazette sports reporter Dan Mountney cast an eye over their 2-1 loss against Empoli in Serie A last Wednesday.
Carlo Ancelotti’s side fell behind to a 28th minute Diego Farias strike, before Piotr Zielinski equalised with a superb long-range effort on the stroke of half-time.
But, Giovanni Di Lorenzo scored the winner with a header seven minutes after the break, in what was a disappointing Napoli display.
Then, on Sunday, they only managed a 1-1 draw at home to Genoa, despite playing 10-men for more than hour.
What can Arsenal expect when the Italian side visit the Emirates tomorrow?
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Napoli have very little to play for in Serie A, sitting comfortably in second on 64 points before last Wednesday’s game, 17 behind leaders Juventus and 10 ahead of third placed Inter Milan.
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With that in mind, Ancelotti rested a number of key players ahead of the first-leg.
The most notable of those was Belgian attacker Dries Mertens, named among the substitutes.
The 31-year-old is a real danger man for I Partenopei, scoring 13 times in all competitions this season after netting 22 and 34 in the previous two campaigns.
Right-back Elseid Hysaj and promising Spanish midfielder Fabian Ruiz – signed from Real Betis in the summer for a fee of around €30 million – were also on the bench.
Most importantly for Arsenal, diminutive attacker Lorenzo Insinge missed out through injury, and although he return to the squad on Sunday, a lack of fitness is a really concern for the Italians.
Exposing the full-backs
Against Empoli, the Naples-based side were exposed time and time again in the wide areas.
Right-back Kevin Malcuit was either caught out of position or found wanting at the back, with the Frenchman on his heels inside the box for the opening goal.
Mario Rui fared only slightly better on the opposite flank, getting forward well but also leaving space in behind and looking suspect when dealing with balls into the area.
Empoli forwards Farais and Francesco Caputo ran riot when the full-backs went forward, with Napoli centre-halves Kalidou Koulibaly and Sebastiano Luperto often left two against two.
If Arsenal can get Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette in similar positions, they could cause serious problems.
They didn’t look great at the back last Wednesday, and they weren’t much better on Sunday at home to Genoa, when they drew 1-1 despite playing 10-men for more than an hour.
Ancelotti is aware of the problem too. After the game, he said: “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.”
In fact, the last time I Partenopei kept a clean sheet was over a month ago on March 7, when they beat Red Bull Salzburg 3-0 in the Europa League last-16 first-leg.
Napoli’s midfield maestro
Brazilian midfielder Allan was a real standout performer for Ancelotti’s side against Empoli.
Capped three times by his country, the holding midfielder keeps the ball well and looks to move it forward whenever possible, but he’s equally effective doing the dirty work for his side, snapping at opponents heals with terrier-like determination.
Combined with his energy and positional awareness, Allan is Torreira-esque in his style.
Instantly recognisable with the rolled down socks, he is an integral cog in the Napoli machine and will be key if they want to keep Mesut Ozil quiet.
The Ancelotti factor
When discussing the elite of management, Carlo Ancelotti’s name has to be mentioned.
During a near 24-year coaching career, he’s amassed an impressive CV which includes spells at Juventus, AC Milan, Chelsea, PSG, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich, with 20 trophies won, including four league titles and three UEFA Champions Leagues.
With his side trailing 2-1 against Empoli, he made a double change on the hour mark, introducing Mertens and Ruiz.
While they may not have turned the game back in I Partenopei’s favour, it shows a willingness to switch the impetus of the game, something his counterpart tomorrow evening, Unai Emery, has been praised for this season.
A top coach with an abundance of big game experience, Ancelotti could be key in deciding the course of the tie.