Last season, it was Atletico Madrid. Arsenal were paired with the Spanish giants in the semi finals of the Europa League. Diego Simeone’s side were the first real test that the Gunners had faced in the competition and they stumbled, failing to make the final and secure a place in the following season’s Champions League. That might have been the moment Arsene Wenger was truly pushed out the exit door.
This season, with Wenger gone and Unai Emery at the helm, the litmus test has come a little earlier in the Europa League. Napoli will travel to North London this week to take on Arsenal with a place in the competition’s final four on the line. It’s arguably the toughest draw that the Gunners could have been handed.
“We are being consistent a lot at the moment,” Emery explained ahead of the quarter final clash against the Italians. “This match is a big-level match, and the level we want to play. It’s a very big test for us in this competition. We want to play the best teams and Napoli now is one of the best teams, with the best players and also a very experienced coach.”
Indeed, Napoli are a quality side. In a more favourable Champions League group, they would have qualified for the top tier competition’s last 16. Even still, they managed to beat Liverpool, drawing against Paris Saint-Germain home and away. Napoli are an elite level side even if they are not competing at the elite level.
Under Maurizio Sarri, Napoli were the epitome of dynamic, exciting, forward-thinking football. Those qualities have been blunted somewhat since the exit of Sarri to Chelsea last summer, but Carlo Ancelotti has picked up where he left off, maintaining Napoli as a force both domestically and in Europe.
Arsenal will fancy their chances against Napoli. There’s a case to be made that the Gunners are the favourites to win this season’s Europa League. Atletico Madrid were, and still are, a better side than the Italian visitors to the Emirates Stadium this week.
But what happens over the two legs will provide an indication as to whether Arsenal are ready to win the Europa League, pulling up a seat at next season’s top table in the Champions League. Napoli, just like Atletico Madrid last season, are the litmus test for Arsenal in this competition.
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