Well, he did describe him as the best coach in England. Perhaps Rafael Benitez was getting the excuses in first. Both Arsène Wenger, celebrating 17 years in the job, and Benitez, 17 weeks, rode into this fixture on the same wave of euphoria that attaches to the good days.
An explosive start to his tenure at Napoli helped bend the light on Benitez’s short time at Chelsea, once characterised as divisive and chaotic but now measured in complimentary terms through the revisionist prism. We have already witnessed how football’s impassioned short-termism has rerouted Wenger from the doghouse after Arsenal’s opening day defeat by Aston Villa to a pedestal, ready to be cast in bronze.
Make that gold if this carries on. Wenger returned the compliment in his programme notes, describing Benitez as “great” and adding: “The career he is having at the highest level is no surprise to me.” You wondered if the photographers camped at the tunnel entrance were expecting the pair to emerge into the arc lights holding hands.
There was little of this bonhomie on the Holloway Road, where reports emerged of Napoli fans on the rampage. Perhaps they, too, knew what was coming. Neither was the Napoli kit overly conciliatory with its military camouflage tones. A little of the Manchester Uniteds at Southampton all those years ago when the wrong shade of grey ruined their sight lines, according to Sir Alex Ferguson.
It was not each other Napoli failed to locate but Mezut Özil, who in the space of 15 minutes threatened ruin for the mutual appreciation society established in the dugout, scoring one and creating another. Benitez has given Napoli an attacking impetus not seen since the days of Diego Maradona. The departure of Edinson Cavani and Ezequiel Lavezzi gifted Benitez licence to lay a fresh template, which has let his team rise to second in Serie A.
Football in Italy is experiencing something of a renaissance, the rise of Juventus, Roma and Napoli re-inforcing the flowering of the national teams at senior and Under-21 level. So the arrival of a resurgent Napoli was in part an opportunity to measure English standing in this competition, which has suffered a downturn in recent seasons, notwithstanding Chelsea’s Champions League success last year.
The urgent presence of Benitez anchored to the touchline was its own judgement on a first half in which Napoli were subjugated by the pace and precision of an Arsenal team rapidly acquiring substance. Özil, a hefty investment at £40m-plus, doubled in value to Gareth Bale prices, with Aaron Ramsey not far behind.
Like the best golf swings these two are the core around which the club revolves, and Arsenal were all timing and power through the impact zone.
Beyond their kit, and the haircuts of Marek Hamsik (Mohican), Valon Behrami (skunk) and Lorenzo Insigne (retro Beckham), we saw little of the Neapolitan aesthetic. The absence of Gonzalo Higuain with a hamstring strain robbed Napoli of some forward thrust and the occasion offered the chance to weigh the relative contributions of the men who one way or another have defined Arsenal’s season.
Had Wenger been sharper in advancing the purchase of Higuain, Özil might be wearing a different shade of red. His capture has galvanised Arsenal in a way only great players can. When his days are done in London the German will surely be accorded the same status at the Emirates as the best of the club’s foreign contributors, alongside Thierry Henry, Patrick Vieira and Dennis Bergkamp.
What was labelled the group of death suddenly represents new life for Wenger and his team. He had wondered out loud beforehand whether this might be his season to embellish a stellar career with the ultimate bauble, the Champions League. Memorably, he was 14 minutes from doing just that seven years ago before Barcelona laid the foundations of their great period with goals from Samuel Eto’o and Juliano Belletti.
It has taken until now for Wenger to rediscover his alchemic touch. And to think Jack Wilshere, considered irreplaceable before the arrival of Özil, was shunted on to the bench, appearing only late in the piece when the game was won. If Wilshere’s relegation is a barometer of Arsenal’s strength then maybe Wenger is right to dream.
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- Dennis Bergkamp
- Diego Maradona
- Gareth Bale
- Italian Football
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