Arsenal will line up in the UEFA Europa League semi-finals for the second year running after a 1-0 win at Napoli on Thursday saw them advance to the competition's last four.
The Gunners brought a 2-0 first-leg advantage to Naples and won 3-0 on aggregate after Alexandre Lacazette scored a thumping long-range free-kick to open the scoring and give his side the only goal on the night.
Napoli had 20 shots on goal to Arsenal's seven but managed to hit the target just twice.
Arsenal's semi-final opponents, Valencia, qualified for the last four after they beat Villarreal 2-0 in the second leg of their quarter-final (5-1 on aggregate), with Toni Lato and Dani Parejo scoring.
Lacazette the Big-Game Player Aubameyang Should Aspire To Be
On another big stage prepped for Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang to shine in Arsenal colours and regain his former glories, it was resurgent Lacazette who dazzled to prove who rules the roost in the Gunners' attack.
Aubameyang's first major mistake involved conceding the ball to Kalidou Koulibaly deep in Napoli territory, and the hosts proceeded to miss a glaring scoring chance down the other end.
He then missed a glorious chance to put Arsenal 4-0 up in the tie. Sportswriter Charles Watts described the striker's error:
Lacazette, in comparison, took the game by its horns in the 36th minute with his first attempt at goal, firing in from 30 yards with a free-kick that left Napoli goalkeeper Alex Meret rooted (U.S. only):
It was the Frenchman's fifth goal in his last 11 league and European appearances, via BT Sport (UK only):
Unai Emery has taken more strongly to Lacazette as a starter as the season has progressed, and his opener in Naples was the latest in a growing list of important contributions for the club.
After scoring against Chelsea in January, he recently assisted both goals in a 2-0 win over Manchester United. Lacazette also assisted Aaron Ramsey's breakthrough in the 1-1 draw against Tottenham Hotspur in March and scored vital goals in wins over Cardiff City and Huddersfield Town.
Aubameyang did score the winner against Watford on Monday but was largely inaccurate up top after that, failing to hit the target again with his other four attempts.
Sportswriter Jonny Singer was critical of his performance on Thursday and feared Aubameyang had diminished in a crucial area:
Meret made a great save to deny the Gabon international in the second half, but Aubemayang was all too often not working for the ball as Lacazette was, seen with hands on hips and static next to his marker.
It was telling that Emery withdrew Lacazette on the 68th minute with qualification all but assured, resting the star who's deservedly claimed the starting striker spot for his own.
Koulibaly Underlines Need to Leave Napoli to Realise Potential
Loyalty is a dying trait in football, so it's a shame Koulibaly may never go on to accrue the silverware collection his commitment to Napoli deserves.
The Senegal international is the most valuable player at the Stadio San Paolo and is arguably the best central defender in Serie A. He illustrated his value by robbing Aubameyang in his own half and springing a counter-attack (U.S. only):
It's partly a testament to Carlo Ancelotti's defence that Napoli failed to concede from open play, with Koulibaly ruling the air with six duels won, per WhoScored.
WhoScored attested to the former Genk talisman standing as superior to Arsenal captain Laurent Koscielny in a majority of important fields:
Koulibaly will turn 28 in June, and a Supercoppa Italiana triumph in 2014-15, his first season at the club, remains the only trophy he's won in Naples thus far.
The club also reached the Europa League semi-finals in that season, but two runs to the UEFA Champions League knockout stages in five seasons are little to show for a player of his calibre.
Daniel Murphy of the Manchester Evening News wrote of Manchester United's interest in a €150 million (£129.7 million) deal for Koulibaly, but Ancelotti has ruled out a sale, per Goal:
The defender has a contract at Napoli until June 2023, but Napoli have finished second to the Bianconeri in two of the past three seasons, with a likely third on the way.
Koulibaly would upgrade numerous title contenders' defences, though his admirable commitment would make riches at Napoli all the sweeter if he does remain.
Arsenal's immediate attention turns toward a Premier League fixture at home to Crystal Palace on Sunday, while Napoli are scheduled to host Atalanta on Monday.
This article will be updated to provide more information soon.
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