The trick to not falling off a high wire can be neatly summed up in just one word. Balance. To avoid painfully plunging to the depths below a seasoned acrobat will be careful to maintain their balance at all times. They do this by shifting most of their weight, or centre of mass, directly over their base of support – usually a perilously thin strip of wire. One lapse of concentration though and it’s game over.
The Champions League second tie with Napoli is a very high wire indeed. It’s one that we have to navigate with caution and, just like our circus friends pouncing about high up near the marquee’s canopy, balance is going to be the key to a successful outcome. Some slack defensive lapses cost us dear in the Stadio San Paolo, not just in terms of the score on the night, but because it pushes the odds firmly in Napoli’s favour for the second leg. This side are defined by their distinguished counter-attacks, a team that is built like a spring trap, happy to sit deep and then commit numbers quickly forward for the sucker punch. The elusive Lavezzi and prolific Cavani are clinical forwards that are more than capable of punishing any defensive mistakes and making those flourishes forward count on the scoreboard. Chelsea need at least two goals to progress in the tournament and will have to commit bodies forward to break down a stubborn Italian rearguard. Making sure that we don’t succumb to a further blow on the break will be crucial. When to push forward, when to stick or twist, might be a tough call for the players and manager to make but getting the balance right between attack and defence could be pivotal to any comeback.
I thought that AVB’s formation in the first leg, two holding midfielders screening our defensive line in the middle of the pitch, was a good tactical safeguard but perhaps the personnel chosen weren’t quite right on the night. For the home leg we need a more attacking approach from the kick off and it might be a calculated risk to lose one of these holding roles from the middle to give us another attacking option. The first leg showed how chronically slow the back three of Napoli were, a high defensive line would be suicidal in this tie, so they are certain to drop deep with two banks of defensive lines and congest the final third. Two holding midfielders won’t give us the angles nor creativity needed to punch through the proverbial parked bus. We’ve seen how well Inter defended two years ago in similar circumstances. Guile with the final pass and making sure the ball is zipped about quickly can shift those defensive lines out of place. We’ll also need to push the full backs forward to get width and spread the play, again balance will be vital so that that dangerous Napoli trident aren’t left in acres of space behind them.
I think if we’re not going to concede chances on Wednesday night Di Matteo might look to press high up the pitch and with a lot of intensity. We need to stop the supply line to the front three and win the ball back in the opponents half. That way we can actually punish them when they’re looking to break away against us. It might be tempting to push Ramires further forward to chase down defenders in an earlier phase of play and similarly Torres might be considered for a start given his work rate across the frontline. An early goal would cause real unease amongst the Napoli defence for the remainder of the game, as well as igniting the home support. A high octane start to the match would not only set the tempo for our play but also help unsettle the Italian game plan – it’s a must if we’re going to claw our way back into this tie. I can’t help thinking back to another Italian manager who was faced with cup deficits to be overcome early in his Chelsea managerial career. A similar champagne performance from Chelsea in the Champions league can put the fizz back into our season.