Needing a three-goal victory in order to secure advancement, Rafa Benitez and Napoli knew they had it all to do against Arsenal last night. While they came agonizingly close, a last-minute winner for Dortmund and an inability to find a third goal left the Partenopei faithful wondering "what if?" as they stare at the far less prestigious Europa League.
The first half did nothing to calm the nerves. Napoli pressed forward aggressively and often, but they rarely managed to put together much of a sustained threat on Wojciech Szczęsny's goal. As time advanced, the squad grew visibly more and more desperate, leading to a pair of yellow cards for Dries Mertens and Blerim Dzemaili. Napoli had some chances, but just couldn't do anything to convert them.
Arsenal actually had the best chance of the first half, with a breakaway featuring a lovely one-two between Mesut Özil and Santi Cazorla, which ended up seeing Olivier Giroud getting fed the ball on the right side of Napoli's penalty area. Rafael had it sniffed out, though, and did brilliantly to parry Giroud's shot away. Christian Maggio had a tremendous opportunity on a breakaway, but Szczęsny rushed out and forced Maggio to try and chip him, which ended with the ball somewhere in the upper stratosphere. Szczęsny actually tried to gift Napoli a goal near the end of the half by misplacing a pass straight to Gonzalo Higuain, but the Argentine couldn't put his header on-frame.
The second half started out with more of the same. Benitez left the side unchanged, and the wastefulness in the fnial third continued. Goran Pandev has been in good goalscoring form of late, but he continually ruined chance after chance with shocking examples of poor ball control. Arsenal again put together a wonderful chance to threaten Napoli's goal, forcing Rafael to come 20 yards outside of his box to clear the ball away from Giroud, who had lost every Napoli defender with a run on the counter.
Pandev was finally dragged off in favor of Lorenzo Insigne in the 56th minute, and the attack instantly looked much more threatening. Well, except for Pablo Armero, who got through clean on a breakaway and still somehow managed to tap the ball tamely right at Szczęsny. Jose Callejon had a marvelous chance on a break of his own in the 62nd minute, but pushed his shot just wide of the far post.
You could really see the desperation setting in as the 65 minute mark came around, with Arsenals' defense and midfield pivot dropping deeper and deeper, and Napoli pressing forward harder and harder. Then Arsenal brought on Aaron Ramsey for Cazorla, and things started to look a little grimmer for the Italians, as the hard working Welshman would allow Arsenal to keep another body further back without sacrificing too much on the counter. Insigne showed his own profligate nature, rifling a shot at goal from twenty yards out when he had plenty of space and time to get closer for an easier shot. Higuain skied his own chance moments later when he slipped and couldn't square up a ball at the edge of the six-yard box.
Five minutes later, Higuain had another golden chance at the top of the box, and did not leave Napoli fans wanting. Fed the ball with his back to goal at the top of the box, he made a buttery-smooth turn and fired past a diving Szczęsny to put Napoli up 1-0. With Marseilles drawing Dortmund despite being down to ten men, that gave Napoli a breath of fresh air and just a taste of potential advancement. Helping their cause moments later was a moment of insanity from Mikel Arteta, who while already on a yellow absolutely clattered Callejon, earning himself a second yellow and an early shower.
That sunk Arsenal even deeper and kicked up the intensity another notch, as Napoli strived to break through for another. They started putting tremendous pressure on Arsenal's goal, but finding the right approach proved difficult, as Arsenal was packing the box so tightly that they were able to get a body in front of seemingly every cross and shot.
Alas, it was not to be. Dortmund scored in the 86th minute of their match to go up 1-2 over Marseilles, sinking Napoli's chances without two late goals. Even with three added minutes at the end of the match, Napoli just couldn't find their way through. Callejon made it 2-0 at the death by popping up in the right spot in just the right moment, but that would prove to be the last action of the match as the ref blew for full time right after the kickoff.
In all realism, no one should have expected Napoli to advance yesterday. The scenarios required were just too unlikely under the circumstances, especially without Marek Hamsik in the squad. That didn't dismay the squad for a moment, though, and they fought with all their hearts and souls to get the result they needed. In the end, some ill fortune both in Naples and in Marseilles sunk them, but they still pushed to the very last moment, as evidenced by Callejon's late goal.
What best represented the passion of the squad was the substitute appearance of Lorenzo Insigne. We're used to seeing him come on and fight like a man possessed, but what we saw last night was something on a whole other level. The local starlet wanted to move on in the Champions League with every ounce of his being, and he was willing to do anything to get there. His joy when Higuain scored his goal what immensely uplifting, and his despair at falling short was palpable.
Despite the pain, credit to Napoli for putting every ounce of effort they had in them to try and get through. You always want to see your squad leave it all out on the pitch, and the Partenopei certainly did that tonight. With this result comes the dubious honor of being the first side in Champions League history to be eliminated from the group stage with 12 points, but at least they were able to force the issue to literally the last moment that they could. Now comes the Europa league, and the rest of the Serie A season. Hopefully the squad can focus last night's intensity and emotion in to better performances