Arsenal are through to the knockout stages of the Champions League for a 14th successive season.
Arsène Wenger’s side had hoped to secure top spot in Group F on Wednesday night. However their 2-0 defeat at Napoli, combined with Borussia Dortmund’s late winner at Marseille, sent them down to second spot.
The visitors were undone by an expert finish from Gonzalo Higuain 16 minutes from time in the Stadio Sao Paolo.
The dismissal of Mikel Arteta three minutes later created a tense finale but they did enough to close out the minimum required result. Jose Callejon scored a second with the final kick of the game.
So a disappointing night for Arsenal who will now face one of Barcelona, Real Madrid, PSG, Bayern Munich or Atletico Madrid in the last 16 next year.
But that's for 2014. It is back to domestic matters now.
First up, it’s Manchester City on Saturday.
SETTING THE SCENE
The odds were stacked in Arsenal’s favour this evening. They would win the group with a draw while a narrow defeat would still see them qualify. If Dortmund failed to beat Marseille the equation was even more straightforward.
Napoli’s form had been indifferent of late but the intimidating Stadio San Paolo still represented a serious test.
In recent matches, Wenger had always rotated a couple of players in midfield and he stuck with that policy this evening.
The urgency about Napoli was obvious from the first whistle. They knew they had to dictate the game and they began a high tempo, pressing the visitors at every opportunity.
Then Higuain raced down the left tried to find unmarked the Macedonian striker in the middle only for Per Mertesacker to time his interception to perfection.
The game had been Napoli’s thus far but the early goal they craved had not arrived.
In the 23rd minute, Arsenal created their first chance of note – and so nearly took the lead. Olivier Giroud’s angled drive was beaten out by Rafael Cabral and landed at the feet of Mesut Ozil. The German is normally so sure-footed but this time he was always off-balance and could only scuff a shot wide.
Suddenly the visitors looked more composed. Flamini started to snap into tackles, Santi Cazorla and Rosicky began to move the ball around at speed.
Callejon fired over and Christian Maggio drifted an angled effort wide. But, once again, it was from distance. The visiting defence had groaned under the strain of that early pressure but had never allowed the Napoli attack a proper sight of Szczesny.
The only time they did was down to the keeper himself just before half-time. He cleared a regulation back pass straight on to the head of Higuain.
Fortunately for Szczesny the effort bounced into the side-nettng.
Arsenal were not prepared to sit back at the start of the second half. They pushed forward in concerted fashion looking for the goal that would, in all probability, put them in the knockout Round.
Ozil thumped an effort wide then combined beautifully with Giroud only to be dispossessed at the crucial moment.
Napoli had to respond and, in the circumstances, were prepared to gamble to make something happen. It turned the game back in their favour.
Pablo Armero raced onto a flick down the left but shot at Szczesny when there were better options in the middle.
Midway through the half Callejon concluded a promising breakaway by driving his shot just beyond the far post. Shortly afterward the midfielder set up Higuain to lift his drive over the bar from an acute angle.
Suddenly, Napoli were in charge once more.
And this time they made the breakthrough.
In the 74th minute, Armero crossed in from the left. Higuain laid the ball back to Callejon, who returned the favour.
The former Real Madrid striker controlled the ball with one touch, swiveled and sent his shot low into the corner.
Worse was to come, Arteta brought down Callejon and received his second yellow card.
That whipped up the atmosphere still further but Arsenal’s experience and defensive solidity stood firm.
They conceded a second deep into injury time when Callejon chipped Szczesny.
But the whistle blew as soon as Arsenal kicked off.
- Rosicky 75
- Cazorla 67
- Arteta Yellow Card Red Card
- Giroud Yellow Card
- Monreal 75
- Ramsey 67 Yellow Card
- Rafael Cabral
- Fernandez Yellow Card
- Behrami Yellow Card
- Callejon Goal!
- Mertens Yellow Card
- Dzemaili Yellow Card
- Pandev 57
- Higuain Goal!
- Bruno Uvini
- Insigne 57