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Wednesday 2 October 2013

When The Moon Hits Your Eye Like A Big Pizza Pie....That's Amore

With Naples being the home of the pizza, it seemed appropriate to head to Il Bacio  in Blackstock Road for some pre-match grub. But they were full when I phoned and it was only thanks to a cancellation that they managed to squeeze us in. I guess we should count our blessings that we didn't instead opt for some more local cuisine from Piebury Corner's new pie shop in Holloway Road, where the lovely Paul, Nicky and their local punters were attacked by 50/60 cowardly Napoli Ultra scum before tonight's game.

But then, as was evident with Napoli's utterly gutless second-half performance this evening, I guess their fans are a reflection of their heartless football team. It might prove a slightly different story in Naples, with Higuain back as a focal point for their attack. Still, when everyone was talking up this match as an encounter with our most onerous opposition of the season thus far, quite frankly I was amazed quite how easily we managed to roll over Serie A's high-flyers.

I'm assuming it must be related to the confidence currently coarsing through the club right now, but when we've so often been guilty in the past of commencing Champions League matches at such a low tempo and have as a consequence struggled to inject some real zest into games, most pleasing for me was the way in which we went about this match, right from the KO, with such wonderfully high-energy and gusto, that the Fat Spanish Waiter's football team were already two-nil down, without barely having had a kick of the ball.

I would have loved us to have finished the game off with a third goal, while we were so dominant, as I feared (needlessly it subsequently transpired!) that Napoli must have a period when they'd come back into the match and I was worried that if they did nick a goal, it might offer the visitors the necessary encouragement to drag themselves back into this match.

Nevertheless, despite the fact that it was inevitable that we would take our foot of the gas second half and frustratingly drop far too deep for everyone's liking, the fact that our feint-hearted guests never once bothered us with the sort of swift counter that would've previously ended all hopes of a clean sheet, is perhaps an optimistic indicator of the improving maturity of an Arsenal team that is finally beginning to learn from so many consecutive years of Champions League lessons.

I have to admit that when I discovered that Wenger had included both Flamini and Arteta in the starting line-up, thereby having to omit the likes of Jack Wilshere, I was initially disappointed because this seemed like a somewhat negative line-up on our home turf. However I'm happy to be the first to admit to being wrong because after the evidence of tonight's performance, this would appear to be the perfect combination for Champions League matches.

Both players are perfectly willing to get forward and contribute to attacking movements when the opportunity presents itself, but they both have the experience and the nous to know when to sit and offer themselves as a protective wall in front of our defence. This also appears to have the effect of liberating the three midfielders in front of them, knowing they can count on Flamini and Arteta to stop at home and ensure that our free-flowing attacking football cannot be undone, by being left short of numbers for the swift counter.

Moreover, as has been evident since Flamini's reintroduction, the Frenchman's presence and his maturity, in offering himself as such a wholehearted and committed screen in front of our back four and the snowball momentum of that special "winning feeling"has leant our entire defence a certain poise and unflappability that has previously been sorely missing amongst the frantic, panic-stricken footballers who've been so accustomed to conceding goals as a result in the past.

That breathtaking fifteen minute opening spell of football this evening, where the jaw-droppingly intuitive interchanges between Ramsey, Rosicky and Özil were as good as anything we've witnessed from Wenger's teams in the past, left everyone, bar the noisy Napoli fans in the corner, positively purring with pleasure.

What's more, as someone who has often knocked Olivier Giroud in the past, believing that our "oh so fabulous" French striker would never amount to a top draw centre-forward, I simply have to doff my hat to the man. I don't know how obvious it will have been to those watching on the box, but Olivier produced the epitome of a perfect centre-forward performance this evening. Giroud is proving himself to be the ideal foil for our ticci-tacca midfield and I barely recall a single instant in tonight's game, where he failed to either hold the ball up and open up the play for incisive forward movements, or induce a cunning free-kick from the clumsy opponent up his backside.

And in the second-half, where his team mates weren't quite as enthusiastic about advancing in front of our central striker, Giroud produced a trojan effort, winning the vast majority of aerial battles and ensuring that we weren't guilty of gifting our guests the sort of sloppy possession that would've made this a much harder workout for the whole team. Olivier might enjoy making sure that everyone is patently aware how much work he gets through in a match, with all his far too blatant and typically Gallic huffing and puffing, but as far as I'm concerned, he'll never come in for criticism from me, so long as he continues to put in such an industrious shift.

The only slight reservation as far as I'm concerned, is that both Rosicky and Arteta seem to begin to show obvious signs of heavy legs after the hour mark, with Thomas deprived of the vitality to continue making lung-bursting runs into the box and a little too guilty of giving the ball away, while Mikel's fatigue is too often evident in him ending up on the wrong side of his opponent, forced to make the sort of challenges that will inevitably result in us being forced to defend set-pieces in dangerous positions.

Never in a million years would I knock Flamini's commitment, with him producing the sort of biting challenges that set the tone for all his team mates and snapping at the opposition's heels, to the point where they're only too delighted to lay the ball off like a hot potato. Admittedly the incident occurred on the other side of the pitch to me, but I've no idea how Matty managed to avoid a yellow card this evening. Perhaps Champions League officials have received similar instructions to their Premiership colleagues this season and are making a concerted effort to keep their cards in their pockets. But in the past, the over-officious Champions League bods who seemed to want to promote a non-contact sport, would've been guaranteed to book our French midfielder.

Here's hoping Mikel and Thomas can last the course and that Matty might stay on the pitch long enough to maintain our stout defensive record. But then with the likes of Wilshere and Gnabry on the bench this evening and with Cazorla, Walcott, the Ox, even Diaby to come back, it could be argued that the current team is as balanced an outfit as we've witnessed in the Champions League to date and one that is capable of sustaining a proper challenge (instead of settling for qualification to the knockout stages as the height of our limited ambitions!).

Obviously you'd have to qualify any such euphoric optimism, with reservations over whether the likes of Nick Bendtner can contain his ego long enough, to offer sufficiently enthusiastic and conscientious cover up front, or if the likes of Vermaelen, Jenkinson and Monreal can slip seamlessly into this picture when required.

I assume Dortmund will present a far stiffer test than a Napoli side who surrendered quicker than the Italian army, but meanwhile, with each successive triumph, it's becoming harder and harder to contain the rapidly burgeoning mood of rapture. Considering the bonkers media bandwagon means that modern sides are only ever one defeat away from lurching between Arsenal legends and also-ran losers, I for one intend to make the very most of enjoying the moment while I can