Arsenal 2 Napoli 0 match report: Mesut Ozil inspires Gunners to impressive victory over Rafael Benitez's side
Early goals from Mesut Özil and Olivier Giroud make it an unhappy Champions League return to England for Rafa Benitez
When he hears the stories about Arsenal's many seasons of pain, the humiliating defeats and their barren eight years without a trophy in English football, Mesut Özil could be forgiven for wondering if people are talking about the Arsenal that he knows.
After all, the German must think, here is a club at which confidence abounds, and where the fans sing the name of their long-serving manager with an unmistakeable passion. A club where the biggest spending team in Serie A this summer came tonight and found themselves two goals down before they had barely strung a sequence of passes together.
Can the occasionally hapless, often potless, sell-their-best-players Arsenal really be the same club that Özil has joined, the team top of the Premier League, top of Champions League Group F and with ten straight wins (including the Capital One Cup victory on penalties) this season? Yes, they surely can and it has been quite a transformation.
It was Özil who opened the scoring on eight minutes with a goal worthy of a bonafide world superstar, and immediately this Arsenal team knew that they were not going to be beaten. Olivier Giroud added the second on 15 minutes and although they never scored again Arsenal never looked like they were struggling. In fact they should have had many more.
There is no doubting the fact that Napoli were very poor but you know it has been a good performance when Arsene Wenger is asked post-match if he can remember a better recent display from his team in the Champions League. He identified the second leg victory over Barcelona in February 2011, a game which they won 2-1 but lost the tie on aggregate.
Of course, even in their bleakest times in recent years, Arsenal always made it out the Champions League group stages, but this time they are set fair to stroll into the last 16 and, on this form, are the kind of side that no club would fancy being drawn against. For so long the bullied boys among the elite of European football, Arsenal suddenly have the don't-mess-with-us look about them, and for the long-suffering Emirates crowd this is a thrilling development.
The only damage that Napoli did in north London was the brief havoc that the worst behaved of the Italian club's support wrought on the Piebury Corner restaurant on the Holloway Road. Someone should have warned them: you mess with one of Islington's prime suppliers of bespoke matchday food, you are really going to get the discerning locals angry.
Arsenal players celebrate Özil's opener (Getty)
It is telling that Wenger felt that he could even do without Jack Wilshere, who was on the bench, although he got a second half substitute's run-out. This is a team where the competition for places is fierce. Aaron Ramsey was excellent again and came off late on to a standing ovation. Of course, it is all just early days yet but it is shaping up to be quite a season for the Premier League leaders.
There was no Gonzalo Higuain in the Napoli team but one would be tempted to say that it would not have made a whole heap of difference the way in which Arsenal played, especially in that first half. It is telling what a stiff dose of confidence has done for this football club, flowing from the pitch to the stands and recycled back again to propel a compelling performance.
With Özil in midfield, and the belief of a home support that has been sceptical in the past, Arsenal felt like a famous club again. They did not wait around for Napoli to decide the pace of the game, rather they did it their way and continued in that vein for much of the first half.
The first 15 minutes were a marvellous example of how to crush an opponent's belief early in the game. Rafa Benitez had set his team up carefully to keep the game tight and yet within 15 minutes, two goals down, he looked bewildered in his technical area as Özil, Giroud and Ramsey took his defence to pieces.
Olivier Giroud and Valon Behrami contest a header (Getty)
The first goal was a beauty, created down the right by Giroud's knock down to Ramsey. That beguiling old combination of power and technique that characterised the best of the Wenger years was exemplified by Giroud's strength to guide the ball to Ramsey. He cut the ball back to Ozil, just inside the area. The German used the power of the cross to steer the ball with the inside of his foot beyond Pepe Reina.
It looked easy; it most certainly was not. For a club that has been starved of this thrilling kind of confident attacking football - at least on a regular basis - in recent years this was savoured by the home crowd. They are a restrained bunch at the best of times but there was a palpable delight about the way their team was playing. And there was more to come.
Giroud scored the second on 15 minutes. The lamentable Miguel Britos mishit a clearance and Mathieu Flamini got a foot in to guide the ball to Giroud. From there it went to Özil, cutting in along the goalline and he stroked the ball back to Giroud who finished the whole move off. It was a swift punishment for a small Napoli error and it was exactly the kind of ruthlessness that makes a successful team.
Giroud scored his first goal of this season's Champions League campaign (AP)
The introduction of Wilshere in the second half gave Arsenal a new energy in midfield and he masterminded one break forward in the 74th minute that was impressive. But Arsenal had this game won and Napoli could hardly lay a glove on them.
Reflecting on it later, Wenger said that the second half had been, to use his exact phraseology, “handbrake-ish”. The Arsenal manager's name was sung over and again by the home support and there was the kind of jubilation at the final whistle that has so often been absent in this stadium.
In all, they restricted Napoli to one chance of not, a header from Britos in the first half that the defender could not keep on target. For all their attacking force, it was a comfortable defensive performance too. Wenger noted that in the final 15 minutes, Napoli tired considerably.
It was 294 days since the darkest day last season, when Wenger's side lost to then League Two Bradford City on penalties in the League Cup. It was just 45 days since they lost their first game of the Premier League season to Aston Villa and were booed off the Emirates. How life has changed since then. How long they can keep it going? Ten games in and they seem to be getting better.
Arsenal (4-2-3-1): Szczesny; Sagna, Mertsesacker, Koscielny, Gibbs; Arteta, Flamini; Ramsey (Monreal 89), Özil, Rosicky (Wilshere 62); Giroud.
Napoli (4-2-3-1): Reina; Mesto, Albiol (Fernandez 83), Britos, Zuniga; Behrami, Inler; Callejon (D Zapata 78), Hamsik, Insigne; Pandev (Mertens 61).
Man of the match Ramsey.
Referee M Mazic (Serb).
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