Despite finishing top of the group, Chelsea faced a tricky draw in the form of Napoli, who finished runners up in their group, behind our fellow finalists Bayern Munich. The club from Naples had an impressive run in the group stage and finished ahead of Manchester City, scoring 10 times in the six games. Led by the lethal Edinson Cavani, coupled with Ezequiel Lavezzi’s brilliance and the ever reliant Marek Hamsik, this fixture was not going to be a walk in the park. The Walter Mazzari coached side lined up with a 3-5-2 formation, although his assistant was at the touchline for this game. Chelsea were without club captain John Terry, and our manager Andre Villas-Boas who was often criticised for his eccentric line ups, decided to bench our top scorer Frank Lampard.
The game kicked off in an uneasy manner- the hostile home support witnessed both teams being sloppy in possession. Neither team could keep the ball for long enough to string a few passes and turn it into something productive. Understandably enthusiastic, the players played in an aggressive manner- borderline reckless. The first casualty was Hugo Compagnaro, whose collision with Didier Drogba in the 10th minute resulted in him wearing a bandage on his head for the rest of the game. The first substitution quickly followed, this time for the visitors, as Jose Bosingwa went down with a hamstring pull. Half-fit Ashley Cole was his replacement. Petr Cech was his usual brilliant self, denying Maggio with a fine save after whipping out his legs to prevent Cavani from scoring earlier. The home side were definitely on top, and the supporters couldn’t believe that the game was still goalless.
This shortly changed, but not in favour of the Napoli supporters. While their prayers for a breakthrough were answered, it was the visitors who scored. Spanish playmaker Juan Mata tidily finished a wild clearance from Cannavaro, who intended to kick it in the opposite direction altogether. A goal out of nowhere and completely against the run of play, the travelling support was jubilant. Regardless of the result, they knew that an away goal would be a crucial advantage to take back to London.
The goal saw a tilt in the number of chances created, with Chelsea seeing more of the ball. Daniel Sturrridge wasted a brilliant opportunity as he went for glory himself instead of playing goal scorer Mata through again. The resulting corner saw Luiz head the ball just over the crossbar. Fine margins. Chelsea’s supremacy was soon cancelled out by a brilliant strike from Ezequiel Lavezzi. He curled the ball from 25 yards to finally get the better of our Czech goalkeeper, after Meireles shied away from a challenge. Instead of charging towards him and get his body in the way, the Portuguese midfielder tracked back, allowing Lavezzi all the space he needed to make the hosts level.
Our midfield pivot of Ramires and Meireles were having a torrid time and getting overrun in midfield, while seeming disjointed from the attack. Ramires wasted a brilliant opportunity to pull ahead once again as he swung his boot wildly from close range. This miss proved far too expensive as gunman and star striker Cavani put Napoli ahead in first half stoppage time. Despite being all over the place defensively, Chelsea were holding on by a thread and waiting for the referee to blow his whistle, when Inler put in a fantastic cross which caught right back Ivanovic off guard. Cavani, who was playing off his shoulder, capitalised on the Serb’s absentmindedness and fired the ball into the net from close range. The stadium announcer had been waiting for this moment throughout the evening, as the crowd followed his “Edinsonnnn” with a loud “CAVANIIIIIIII”. The referee then blew his whistle, concluding a rather eventful first half.
Chelsea were aware that they had an away goal, but wanted to come away from Italy with the best result possible. Instead of shutting up shop, Villas-Boas instructed his team to attack with more intensity, which had been lacking in the first half. The Londoners now pressed higher, but not as a unit. This resulted in the Italian team getting past our press easily, especially as they had five across midfield. Chances did fall for both teams, but were rather farfetched. Malouda’s volley was saved easily by De Sanctis, while Ivanovic and Luiz’s darting runs forward rendered useless. Ashely Cole was clearly not ready for full-fledged action, and failed to provide a wide option in attacks. Chelsea drilled several crosses into the opposition penalty box, but with no reward. Club legend Didier Drogba was also missing his shooting boots, as he fluffed his chances on a couple of occasions, and wasn’t effective with his link-up play while dropping deep.
Chelsea were attacking relentlessly, and hence looked shaky at the back. This was exposed by Luiz (and not for the last time in his career), who just kicked the ball straight at Cavani near the Chelsea penalty area. It wasn’t even a proper clearance or a pass; somewhere in between. However, the ball ended up at the Uruguayan striker’s feet, who looked up and saw the darting run from Lavezzi. He picked the Argentinian winger out with precision, who had an open net in front of him as Cech was off his line amongst all the chaos. Three goals to one, and the home side were comfortably ahead at this point. They now decided to sit back, and Chelsea had all the ball for the remainder of the game. Our manager finally decided to bring on Frank Lampard, who was unsuccessful in his quest to reduce the deficit with his trademark long range strikes. Ivanovic couldn’t scramble the ball into the net after a weary moment in the Napoli penalty area, and the difference still remained two.
It almost became three a short while later when Cech was off his line again- this time Hamsik picking Maggio out to tap it into the seemingly open net. However, Cole got back in the nick of time to clear it away, hence not allowing the hosts to put the tie out of reach. Drogba had a chance late in the game to reduce the difference, but dragged it wide, capping off a rather disappointing outing in Italy. Lapse in concentration along with questionable tactics resulted in a poor showing for Chelsea, who also lacked in communication. We could witness two players going for the same ball on more than one occasion, and players passing to ball to no one with the notion that another player would be in that position. Combined together, it left a daunting task three weeks from that day. Could we reverse the tie and make a comeback? Was the unpopular Villas-Boas still at the helm? Find out in next week’s article.