Chelsea were beaten 3-1 by Napoli in the first knockout round of the Champions League after some individual errors cost the Blues dear. Defensive fragility and attacking profligacy were to blame, as two goals from Ezequiel Lavezzi either side of an Edison Cavani strike saw the home side come from a goal down, following Juan Mata’s first-half opener. It was an open game with many chances, but Napoli’s decisive nature saw them come out on top, with more question marks arising over Chelsea’s performance.
Gary Cahill was handed his first career Champions League start in the absence of John Terry – the captain ruled out for six to eight weeks with a troublesome knee. Jose Bosingwa, Florent Malouda and Didier Drogba were also in from the start, with Fernando Torres taking a seat on the bench alongside the ridiculously-neglected Frank Lampard and the bizzarely-rested Ashley Cole.
While Andres Villas-Boas is able to squat on the touchline in relative peace for now, Napoli boss Walter Mazzarri was nowhere nearby, instead serving a suspension after a recent run-in with an opposition substitute which would have made even a certain Mr Mourinho blush.
Amidst the cacophony of the Stadio San Paolo, Petr Cech was called into action early on, punching away a Paolo Cannavaro through ball which was inches away from finding Cavani. Cech’s anticipation was exemplary, and he was again on top form just moments after, saving smartly with his feet from a close-range Cavani effort.
Jose Bosingwa left the pitch inside the first fifteen minutes of the match, pulling up whilst chasing a loose ball; he was replaced by Ashley Cole who had little time to warm up as a consequence.
While Chelsea struggled to make their own possession count – often rushing attacks and losing the ball in the final third – Napoli were rapid on the counter-attack, looking deadly with every foray forward. Branislav Ivanovic was forced to stoop low and head clear a driven in cross which Marek Hamsik was close to connecting with, while Cech was again called in to action, saving from Christian Maggio.
But it was a moment of fortune which opened the scoring, with Drogba and Sturridge combining deep in the Napoli defence. It may have been the uneven pitch, but the latter’s low cross was horrendously swiped at by Fabio Cannavaro, with the ball looping into the air and back down into the path of Mata, who coolly finished past Morgan De Sanctis. The ‘keeper had barely been called into action up until that point.
The Blues held on for all of twelve minutes, with Napoli’s goal coming courtesy of Lavezzi – with a little help from Raul Meireles. The Portuguese midfielder’s limited defensive ability was present for all to see, as he inexplicably turned his back on Lavezzi when the Napoli forward was lurking outside of the Chelsea box with the ball at his feet. Meireles resembled a dog chasing its own tail as Lavezzi curled past Cech for the equaliser.
Ramires missed a golden chance to put the away side back in front towards the end of the first-half; a typically energetic run from the Brazilian ending in a wayward shot over the bar. The deadlock was broken shortly after, however it was Napoli who were celebrating as the first 45 came to a close. Gokhan Inler crossed to the back post after some quick build-up play, and this time Ivanovic was far too slow to react, as Cavani powered in front of him and sent the ball past Cech with a powerful shouldered finish.
An open game promised more goals in the second-half, with both sides taking it in turns to attack. Cavani tested Cech soon after the restart, while Malouda’s long-range effort was diverted away by De Sanctis.
From nowhere, Chelsea began to dominate possession. Napoli were on the ropes, but the Blues were unable to finish any of the half-chances they manufactured. Daniel Sturridge was particularly lively, showing some tricks but creating little, while a clever run from Drogba was matched by a smart lofted through-ball by Malouda. The Ivorian couldn’t fashion a chance though, after a last-gasp tackle by Salvatore Aronica.
And then, sure enough, with Chelsea looking likely to equalise, Napoli went 3-1 up. A hopeful long-ball from Hugo Campagnaro was aimed towards Cavani, with Luiz also at close quarters. Instead of confidently clearing though, the erratic Brazilian defender attempted…well, who knows. Cavani was able to control Luiz’s loose touch, and square it across the edge of the box to Lavezzi, who finished past the backpedalling duo of Cahill and Luiz after Cech rushed out in an attempt to intercept Cavani’s pass. Cue tomorrow’s headlines, today.
Michael Essien and Lampard were thrown on in place of Meireles and Malouda – a switch which should have happened before the match kicked-off, surely – but it was the Italian side who again came closest to scoring, with only a goal-line clearance from Ashley Cole keeping the score respectable.
The Blues now need a 3-1 win or a clear two-goal cushion at Stamford Bridge to progress in the Champions League. Andres Villas-Boas may have one more leg to play, but he is quickly running out of legs to stand on at this rate.