Napoli v Arsenal: Gonzalo Higuain gets away to torment Arsène Wenger one further time - European - Football - The Independent

Napoli v Arsenal: Gonzalo Higuain gets away to torment Arsène Wenger one further time

Gunners manager must rue his decision to suspend his pursuit of the Argentina striker for a failed bid to sign Luis Suarez last summer

stadio san paolo

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.

News
Paper trail: the wedding photograph found in the rubble after 9/11 – it took Elizabeth Keefe 13 years to find the people in it
newsWho are the people in this photo? It took Elizabeth Stringer Keefe 13 years to find out
Arts and Entertainment
Evil eye: Douglas Adams in 'mad genius' pose
booksNew biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Sport
FootballFull debuts don't come much more stylish than those on show here
News
i100
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
Kim Kardashian drawn backlash over her sexy swimsuit selfie, called 'disgusting' and 'nasty'
fashionCritics say magazine only pays attention to fashion trends among rich, white women
Arts and Entertainment
TVShows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Arts and Entertainment
Hit the roof: hot-tub cinema east London
architectureFrom pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
Travel
travel
News
The ecological reconstruction of Ikrandraco avatar is shown in this illustration courtesy of Chuang Zhao. Scientists on September 11, 2014 announced the discovery of fossils in China of a type of flying reptile called a pterosaur that lived 120 millions years ago and so closely resembled those creatures from the 2009 film, Avatar that they named it after them.
SCIENCE
Life and Style
tech
Arts and Entertainment
Matisse: The Cut-Outs exhibition attracted 562,000 visitors to the Tate Modern from April to September
art
Life and Style
Models walk the runway at the Tom Ford show during London Fashion Week Spring Summer 2015
fashionLondon Fashion Week 2014
News
Kenny G
news
News
peopleThe black actress has claimed police mistook her for a prostitute when she kissed her white husband
Life and Style
techIndian model comes with cricket scores baked in
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100

Bleacher Report

Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week