Gonzalo Higuain left the field in tears, inconsolable. Rafa Bentiez applauded the crowd, but surely must have wished his team had taken just one more of its chances. Napoli had won, gaining revenge on Arsenal for a bitter 2-0 loss suffered in October at the Emirates — but it was not enough.
The Champions League’s Group of Death claimed the Italians on Wednesday night as their splendid win at the San Paolo was not enough to progress into the round of 16. Borussia Dortmund’s 2-1 win in France over already eliminated Marseille, courtesy of a late goal from Kevin Grosskreutz, condemned Napoli to an unwanted berth in the Europa League — and put Arsenal through in their stead.
It was not a vintage Arsenal performance by any stretch, and it will raise new questions about this side’s spine after they let a lead slip on the weekend against Everton, missing the chance to hold a seven-point lead atop the Premier League table. Arsene Wenger will surely point to the fact that job is indeed done — but privately, he will be seething after his team was reduced to ten men by Mikel Arteta’s sending off, and failed to kill of a game that for large portions they had dominated.
Fatigue that seems to be striking Arsenal at just the wrong time. The Gunners have been sublime in England, winning games they should win, and eking out points in matches that are closer. To date, the only real midseason blip they have suffered was that draw to the Toffees; their loss at Old Trafford was more unfortunate than anything else. And on Wednesday, with Aaron Ramsey, Jack Wilshere and Theo Walcott all left on the bench, Wenger seemed to be looking ahead to a very difficult game Saturday against Manchester City.
That allowed, for the better part of an hour, Napoli failed to seriously trouble Arsenal, muffing chances and looking panicky when they were on the ball. Laurent Koscielny and Per Mertesacker were stout in the middle of the defense, and Mathieu Flamini turned in another excellent performance, carrying the water, and doing the dirty work up and down the center of the pitch.
That all fell apart when Arteta was sent off with 15 minutes to play. Suddenly, Arsenal — which only moments earlier had conceded a goal to Higuain after a belt of sustained pressure — looked vulnerable.
Credit Benitez for getting the tactics right: his substitution of Lorenzo Insigne for Goran Pandev was inspired, pushing Jose Callejon up the pitch, and forcing Carl Jenkinson into positions he could not escape from. Pablo Armero grew into the game, becoming a steadily harassing presence and a point of service for Higuain, who could and should have done better on at least two other chances.
And that will have Napoli fans shaking their heads. The Italians were close — but not close enough in the end. For Arsenal, it was an escape. Wenger and fans must hope it is not a precursor of things to come as well.
Not since the 2005-06 season had Ajax, the proud four-time European champions, made it to the knockout rounds of the Champions League. The side was lead by Wesley Sneijder then, and still enjoyed something of a continental presence. But the post-Bosman Arrest decay after the mid-90s European halcyon could not be stopped. And Ajax only ever seemed to fall further away.
On Wednesday, though, Ajax stood a decent chance of making it out of that brutal Group H. All it needed was a win at AC Milan on the final day, with Barcelona already qualified and Celtic knocked out. Certainly, that seemed within the realm of possibility, given that only an injury time flop and converted penalty saved the Rossoneri from a loss in Amsterdam in their first meeting.
But in spite of their youthful eagerness, a very green Ajax team, easily mistakable for a youth side from appearances, never managed to find the goal it needed against Milan, the affair ending as it started: 0-0.
A pair of early Dutch chances required interferences from the far post and Milan goalkeeper Christian Abbiati on Christian Poulsen and Davy Klaassen headers. When Riccardo Montolivo got himself sent off for stamping on Poulsen’s ankle in the 22nd minute, the momentum seemed to be with Ajax.
Milan, however, consolidated their personnel behind the ball and shored up its organization. Ajax applied constant pressure in the ensuing 70 minutes but never did find a successful route through all that traffic.
Whether it is in crisis or not, Milan remains awfully hard to break down for an inexperienced side such as Ajax, no matter how technically gifted. The Italians remain savvy at killing off games, however unsightly the process. And it certainly did get ugly late on, as Milan scrapped and clawed its way into the round of 16 by conserving the tie.
FOXSoccer.com’s Leander Schaerlaeckens contributed to this report.