Home » Champ League, Latest » CL Match Report: Napoli 3 Chelsea 1

Andre Villas-Boas’ beloved project went up in smoke in the shadow of Mount Vesuvius on Tuesday night. The Chelsea manager’s belief in players like Raul Meireles proved calamitously costly, leaving an ordinary defence exposed time and again to the counter-attacking verve of Napoli’s Ezequiel Lavezzi and Edinson Cavani.

Chelsea spent significant amounts of time in possession, and Daniel Sturridge darted around promisingly, yet they had only Juan Mata’s goal to show for it. Villas-Boas’ team actually led but Mata’s strike proved the falsest of dawns. Their defence was too vulnerable, David Luiz and Gary Cahill caught out too frequently. How they missed John Terry, who undergoes an exploratory operation on his knee on Wednesday and is expected to be out for up to six weeks.

This was a chastening evening for Chelsea and for those who espouse the primacy of the Premier League. It’s not over, of course. Chelsea will still believe that they can recover on March 14 at the Bridge but they must beware going gung-ho with Lavezzi and Cavani about.

From the opening skirmish of a madcap match, Napoli’s threat on the counter had been clear. Even at 1-0 down, the Italians exuded menace, soon turning this game on its head with three goals, assisted by Chelsea’s haphazard defending.

From the opening whistle, Napoli instantly drilled the ball at Jose Bosingwa, starting at left-back with Ashley Cole on the bench. Before his hamstring gave way, Bosingwa’s brief presence concerned Chelsea fans as did Raul Meireles’ survival in midfield, although his caution midway through the first half sees him suspended for the second leg.

Frank Lampard sat on the bench, kicking his heels until ignominy engulfed Chelsea and they were 3-1 down and Villas-Boas relented. His team-sheet had been a statement of intent, a riposte to the old guard like Lampard, but it was in truth more a suicide note. Villas-Boas had just taken the greatest gamble of his coaching career.

It was not simply the sight of the stewards in the away section sporting hard hats that signalled this was going to be a tough night.

Napoli’s famed attacking trident was soon spotted, its cutting edge glinting menacingly in the San Paolo floodlights. Lavezzi was first to show, darting down the left, showing the type of precision that was eventually to put Chelsea’s defence to the sword.

Cavani, described as “amazing” by an admiring Villas-Boas, was soon testing and beating Chelsea’s offside trap, racing in behind Gary Cahill, who looked far from international class here. Cavani should have scored after seven minutes, running free down the inside-left channel but being denied by a fine save from Petr Cech.

Marek Hamsik then targeted Bosingwa, whose hamstring soon overstretched, seeing him lying in pain on the sodden turf before limping from the fray. Cole duly arrived. Better late than never. In front of Cole, Florent Malouda briefly rolled back the years, embarking on a run deep into enemy territory before Paolo Cannavaro cleared. Napoli’s defence was never completely convincing and Daniel Sturridge and Mata managed to insinuate their way into space before the Italians manned the barricades properly.

Mata was playing in the hole behind Drogba with Ramires and Meireles anchoring. Much of the best midfield work was flowing from the clever feet of Napoli’s No 88, Gokhan Inler. Yet Chelsea dared to dream after 27 minutes. What should have been a routine clearance for Cannavaro turned into a disaster. Sturridge, found by Drogba on the right, had sent in a fairly meek cross which hit a bobble, deceiving Cannavaro, who skied his clearance. The unmarked Mata pounced, controlling the ball and guiding it firmly past Morgan De Sanctis.

Napoli were stunned, Chelsea jubilant. Yet not all of Villas-Boas’ players celebrated with Mata. His defenders, particularly Luiz and Cahill, seized the opportunity to host a quick summit conference in how to deal with Napoli’s attackers. Given their later blunders, they could have done with a longer confab.

Chelsea were impressing for now, attacking hungrily. Drogba, showing good awareness of Sturridge’s run, somehow coaxed the ball out of a cul-de-sac and released the England international. Sturridge sped downfield, eschewing the unmarked Mata gliding towards the far post.

Sturridge hurtled into the box but Napoli managed to throw a light-blue blanket over his run.

Chelsea still had a corner, still had an opportunity to exploit Napoli’s slightly shaky defence. Mata swept the ball in, De Sanctis flapped, Luiz lost Cannavaro but the Brazilian headed over. Huge chance. Huge miss. Huge moment in this tie.

From possibly 2-0 up, Chelsea were soon 1-1. Not for the last time, Chelsea were too slow to react decisively to unfolding danger. When Lavezzi collected possession 20 yards out, Meireles was totally embarrassed by the Argentine’s twitch of hips and sleight of foot.

Suddenly the goal opened up and Lavezzi fired irresistibly past Cech.

Still Chelsea threatened on the break, still they gave their fans hope. Ramires went on one of those buccaneering runs of his but shot wildly over. Meireles then acquired a caution for fouling Inler, so ruling him out of the Bridge return.

A 1-1 half-time scoreline would have been acceptable for the visitors but Chelsea’s concentration dissolved on the cusp of the interval.

Deep into the three minutes of injury time, Chelsea’s defensive frailties were again brutally exposed. Hugo Campagnero had rampaged forward, eventually settling to lay the ball off to Hamsik on the right.

Napoli simply accelerated through the gears, running over Chelsea.

Hamsik stroked the ball back to Inler, who lifted it across towards the far post and there was Cavani, stealing in ahead of the sluggish Branislav Ivanovic, playing the poacher with his shoulder.

Now trailing, Chelsea actually started the second half the stronger, pushing Napoli deep, and having the visiting fans launch into assorted songs. The blue flag was not flying high enough on the pitch, though.

Lavezzi gave another reminder of his capabilities, shooting wide before seizing on hapless defending by Luiz. Cavani collected the ball, squared to Lavezzi and the ball flew past Cech. Luiz continues to look like a midfielder on nervy work experience in defence.

Chelsea never yielded lightly, never stopped looking for a life-line. Yet Napoli should have made it 4-1 but Christian Maggio’s shot was cleared off the line by Cole. As the game melted away, as the tifosi lit their flares, Villas-Boas’ project disappeared in the plumes.

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