Arsenal vs. Napoli: Why Olivier Giroud Will Outshine Gonzalo Higuain
When the Champions League group stage was drawn back in August, the bringing together of Arsenal and Napoli in Group F looked likely to provide two matches of anguish for fans of the North London club.
The thought of Gonzalo Higuain, the striker who got away in the summer, slamming home goals against Arsene Wenger's under-performing side was just too much. Some upped their calls for their longstanding manager to be sacked, while others simply retreated into despair.
Yet Mesut Ozil's arrival on transfer deadline day hasn't been the only pleasant surprise to lift both the fans' mood and the club's forward line so far this season.
Olivier Giroud, the striker signed last summer from Montpellier, has been in excellent form, scoring five goals in nine games between the Premier League and the Champions League. Having often appeared clumsy and off-the-pace when leading Arsenal's line last year, the Frenchman now looks far more comfortable in his surroundings as the team's deft-touched target man.
Over in Italy, and after overcoming a bizarre injury caused by slipping on some wet rocks at the beach, Higuain has been even more effective, chalking up four goals in five games.
As a hard worker and skillful contributor to the team's build play in his own right, Higuain hasn't simply replaced Edinson Cavani as Napoli's singular totemic goal threat. The Argentinian has proved to be much more than just a finisher, blending well with Marek Hamsik, Jose Callejon, Lorenzo Insigne and Goran Pandev in Rafael Benitez's highly effective 4-2-3-1 formation.
Similarly, Giroud's awakening as Arsenal's key man up front has come through greater team play rather than individualism.
The increased creativity brought into the team by Ozil, along with Theo Walcott's pace and Aaron Ramsey's incredible form as a goalscorer, provider and tackler, has allowed him to become a foil for others as well as a more prolific forward in front of goal.
As the team's robust reference point, Giroud helps to turn Arsenal's plethora of options into a fully functioning, multifaceted attack.
The parallels in how both strikers have sought to help their teams in order to help themselves may suggest that Giroud and Higuain will cancel each other out in their Group F showdown.
However, home advantage can make a major difference.
With Napoli a greater threat on the counter, Giroud's superior ability to hold up the ball and play others in could well tell in the battle over which striker has a greater influence. Should Arsenal be able to take control of the agenda from their Serie A opponents, the Frenchman's ball retention would be a vital safeguard against the sort of rapid breaks out of defence that could leave Laurent Koscielny and Per Mertesacker on the back foot.
Having beaten Jurgen Klopp's much-fancied Borussia Dortmund at home 2-1 in their opening Champions League game, Napoli may feel confident that they can translate their European form into their away games, just as they have in the league.
Yet Arsenal are unlikely to make the same mistakes as the fashionable Bundesliga outfit, who perhaps over-thought themselves into disaster with an uneasy shift into a three-man defence.
For all the mockery, Wenger's defenders have performed well as a unit, if not as individuals, over the past 18 months.
Furthermore, should Ramsey and Wilshere be able to harass Hamsik and Inler in the Napoli midfield, Higuain may be forced drop deep in search of the ball himself. With Benitez's tactics so far this season suggesting he prefers his team to sit back and channel pressure rather than press to win back the ball, Partenopei's positioning may in turn help Arsenal's frontman to put pressure on their back four.
Keeping it tight at the back while trusting Giroud's power and capacity to keep the ball under pressure could deliver Wenger the ideal result, although an exciting if inconclusive draw looks likely.
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