Alexandre Lacazette fired Arsenal to an accomplished 1-0 win at Napoli as Unai Emery’s men cruised into the Europa League semi-finals 3-0 on aggregate.
The Premier League side began confidently in defence of their first-leg advantage and did not allow a couple of close defensive shaves and a hamstring injury to Aaron Ramsey to throw them off course.
Lacazette’s wonderful 36th-minute free-kick proved the difference on the night, leaving Carlo Ancelotti’s hosts with a mountain to climb.
Arkadiusz Milik’s wayward finishing did little to help their cause and Emery can look forward to a semi-final showdown with his former club Valencia.
It was Napoli who threatened first when Lacazette was dispossessed by Kalidou Koulibaly, who charged forward on the break in the 17th minute and collected Fabian Ruiz’s pass to find Jose Callejon.
Petr Cech denied the ex-Real Madrid forward before Milik fluffed his lines from a close-range header – misses Napoli would regret shortly after the abrupt conclusion to what might prove Ramsey’s last Arsenal appearance.
Nikola Maksimovic fouled Lacazette 25 yards from goal and the France striker dispatched a sweet strike beyond a motionless Alex Meret in the Napoli goal.
Meret partially atoned for his passivity by making a brilliant save from Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang after Ramsey’s replacement Henrikh Mkhitaryan laid on a glorious 48th-minute chance.
Lorenzo Insigne appeared to be offside when he charged in behind the Arsenal defence to test Cech – the Italy international’s last act before being substituted on his 300th Napoli appearance.
Left-back Faouzi Ghoulam and Callejon both fired wide as the home team tried in vain to build an ambitious final charge.
Milik’s woeful attempt to slide home at the back post with 15 minutes to play summed up his efforts, with Nacho Monreal’s carelessly booted clearance straight at Cech arguably the closest Napoli came to a goal.
What does it mean? Arsenal keep all Champions League avenues open
Napoli’s comfortable cushion in second place in Serie A and virtually guaranteed Champions League qualification might go some way to explaining why Arsenal were far sharper throughout this tie. Emery’s team are embroiled in a suffocatingly tight battle for a top-four place in the Premier League, but the Gunners’ tactical and technical assurance under a coach with ample pedigree in this competition bodes well for them going all the way to the big prize on offer in Baku next month.
Laca dead-ball specialist
Along with Ramsey, Lacazette was pivotal to Arsenal’s assured front-foot start – his sharp, intelligent movement pinning Napoli back and disarming the hosts’ ambitions to land an early blow. After seeing his defence then absorb some pressure, Lacazette won and converted the game-breaking opportunity with aplomb.
Milik’s outing turns sour
By contrast, Ancelotti’s main striker was granted two clear openings and erred badly. A team of Napoli’s attacking talents would not have expected to go through this tie goalless, and Poland international Milik must take his share of the blame.
Key Opta Facts
– Arsenal have kept nine clean sheets in their last 11 European games, conceding just four goals in total in that period.
– Napoli have lost three consecutive European games for the first time since February 2013.
– Arsenal had just 30.3 per cent of possession, their lowest such figure in any competition since February 2017 (25.7 per cent against Bayern Munich in the Champions League).
– Emery has now won 26 matches in the Europa League knockout stages – more than any other manager.
Arsenal host Crystal Palace on Sunday as their battle for a top-four place in the Premier League continues, while Juventus could be Serie A champions by the time Napoli welcome top-four aspirants Atalanta.