Arsène Wenger has regularly offset criticism of Arsenal’s lack of silverware by declaring the club’s unbroken Champions League participation as something akin to a trophy; that record is preserved but a runners-up spot in Group F complicates the question of whether they can now win the trophy itself.
The prospect of this competition giving Arsenal their first major honour since 2005 was diminished by a dramatic sequence of events late in the second half in which Gonzalo Higuain played a pivotal role, which must gall Wenger no end.
In truth, the 26-year-old did painfully little throughout the first 71 minutes of this match. Then he came alive, as top-class strikers do. Turning sharply on the edge of the box, Higuain smashed a left-foot shot past Wojciech Szczesny to break the deadlock and leave Arsenal facing the likelihood of a supremely difficult last 16 draw.
The Gunners’ improvement has been significant and sustained enough to translate into European competition but it is hard to escape the conclusion that Bayern Munich, Barcelona and Real Madrid are better equipped to succeed in Lisbon next May.
Those challenges could have been put on the backburner had Arsenal held out here but instead, in Nyon on Monday, they will face either Paris Saint-Germain, Barcelona, Real Madrid, Atletico Madrid or Bayern Munich.
If they maintain their overall form, Arsenal will face Europe’s finest with optimistic fervour. Until then, domestic matters take precedent and Wenger must ensure this defeat is an exception.
There is no shame in losing at the Stadio San Paolo given the hosts fearsome record – no English team has ever won a Champions League match here – but finishing second will cause Wenger to reflect what might have been given the strength of opponent they now face.
Last season, Arsenal lost the last game of their group and drew eventual winners Bayern Munich in the first knockout round. Initially, it appeared there would no repeat mistake. Focus was sharpened by a vociferous crowd, whose anger intensified as their fate twisted and turned. Rafa Benitez probably still finds the notion of a home crowd targeting their hostility at the opposition and the referee rather than his dugout somewhat novel, given his tenure at Chelsea.
Arsenal stood firm early on. Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny were stoic in central defence, while Mathieu Flamini, Mikel Arteta and Tomas Rosicky marshalled the midfield with quiet defiance.
However, there were still moments of concern. Kieran Gibbs and Carl Jenkinson found it difficult to curb their natural attacking instincts at times as Napoli looked to expose the flanks. But it was Szczesny who proved the most destabilising, firstly rushing off his line unnecessarily to confront marauding full-back Christian Maggio, who lifted the ball over the Arsenal goalkeeper and, fortunately, his crossbar, before his dalliance with Higuain.
Wenger has never been one to ignore the aesthetics of a performance but a rather sterile affair was suiting him just fine.
And then Higuain arrived. The Argentine spoke of his happiness at turning down Arsenal for Napoli after the Italians courted him with greater enthusiasm; how Wenger must rue his decision to suspend his pursuit of Higuain for a failed bid to sign Luis Suarez.
Olivier Giroud has improved immensely to play a pivotal role in Arsenal’s revival this season but the suspicion remains that he is largely incapable of producing individual match-winning moments such as the one that Higuain delivered to raise, briefly, the prospect of Napoli qualifying ahead of Borussia Dortmund.
A second goal proved futile as Dortmund found a winner against Marseilles. The damage to Arsenal was second place. They extended a remarkable run of 14 consecutive Champions League last 16 appearances but whether they can go any further remains to be seen.Reuse content