Napoli piled more pressure on Andre Villas Boas and his stuttering Chelsea team on Tuesday evening, as they ran out 3-1 winners in the first-leg of their Champions’ League second round tie. In a very open game littered with defensive errors, particularly from the Londoners, Napoli showed their quality in front of goal and taught Villas Boas’ side a costly lesson in how to take your chances at top European level.
Chelsea started brightly enough, moving the ball well through midfield, with Juan Mata and Daniel Sturridge seeing plenty of the ball early on. Napoli, in front of their home fans, were keen to strike early, and lead from the front, and they would have taken an early lead through Cavani, had Petr Cech not made an excellent save to deny the Uruguayan hitman his fifth Champions’ League goal of the campaign.
Things got better for Chelsea when, against the run of play, they took a 26th minute lead. Paolo Cannavaro failed to deal with a nothing ball from Daniel Sturridge, allowing it instead to loop up of his foot to Juan Mata, who stole in behind him to slot away the simplest of finishes from 12 yards. The joy and relief amongst the travelling support and the Chelsea playing and coaching staff was clearly evident, as they allowed themselves to believe that this might be the turning point in what’d been a somewhat mediocre season up to that point. The visitors, could even have doubled their advantage a few minutes later had David Luiz not headed over with de Sanctis beaten and the net gaping.
The happiness was short lived however, as a stunned Napoli reverted to doing what they do best, attacking with pace and skill, and forcing Chelsea onto the back foot. The Italians had their equaliser on 37 minutes, Napoli danger man Equeziel Lavezzi broke from midfield, he had options left and right, but, since no Chelsea defenders came to put pressure on the ball, the Argentinian, curled a beautiful right foot shot past Cech, and into his bottom left-hand corner.
Chelsea were visibly shaken, as the confidence given to them by taking the lead, was drained away by Lavezzi’s strike. The hosts continued to push, driving forward at every opportunity, and, just before half-time, they had their reward. Gorkhan Inler picked the ball up from Campagnaro on the Napoli right, advanced a few yards and swung in a sumptuous cross, right through the “corridor of uncertainty, and, the lethal Cavani, took advantage of Ivanovic’s ball watching, to race in at the far post, finishing, using an excellent piece of improvisation, with his shoulder. 2-1 at the break.
By the start of the second-half, it was clear that the winners of this encounter would be the team that was more clinical at putting away the chances that they were bound to get. Neither side was playing well as a defensive unit, and, in fact, neither side seemed to be interested in the defensive side of the game, as the second-half became almost like a basketball match, each team taking turns to attack the other.
Unfortunately for Chelsea, they are not in the midst of a good goal-scoring run, Torres was dropped for the game having failed to score in his last 20 games for the club; Drogba, though still a handful, has been less than prolific in recent times, so most of Chelsea’s goals have been coming from Mata and Sturridge. Though Mata had plenty of the ball in the early stages of the second half, and the Londoners were putting their hosts under sustained pressure, the quality of the final ball or shot was never quite good enough. In fact, their decision making in the final third was poor, and Sturridge cut a frustrated figure on the right, having not been found on numerous occasions when in space.
For all their early second-half pressure, the Blues were undone by another terrible defensive lapse, this time by David Luiz. The Chelsea centre-half had his attempted pass blocked by Cavani, the bounce favoured the Uruguayan, and he slipped it to Lavezzi, who made up for a bad miss five minutes previously, by tucking the ball into the empty net in the 65th minute.
The Blues were unable to recapture their prior impetus, and would have found themselves further behind, had Ashley Cole, an early substitute for the injured Bosingwa, not found himself in the right place at the right time to clear Maggio’s effort from right on the line. A final thrust in the last ten minutes, which included substitutes Frank Lampard and Michael Essien, failed to produce any noteworthy chances for Chelsea, and the game finished 3-1.
Although not totally out of the tie, Chelsea must keep a clean sheet in the return leg at Stamford Bridge. A 2-0 victory would be enough to see the Blues go through, but with their form the way it is, and their inability to keep a clean sheet so obviously apparent, it would be a brave man who’d bet on that happening. If Napoli score away in England, which they have done previously at Manchester City this season, then Chelsea will have a mountain to climb, and the way things are, I can’t see them climbing it.
CSKA Moscow vs Real Madrid (in brief)
In Tuesday’s early kick off in the Champions’ League, Jose Mourinho’s Real Madrid travelled to Russia to take on CSKA Moscow. The Russians, in the midst of their Winter break, hadn’t played competitively for two months and, given the Spaniards’ run of success, many felt that this match was a foregone conclusion.
CSKA shocked the pundits though, by coming back from a goal down to secure a draw with the Spanish giants. Pontus Wernbloom’s injury time volley was the Russians’ only shot on target in the whole game, however, it was enough to cancel out Cristiano Ronaldo’s well executed 28th minute half volley, which had given Real the advantage. In a game that Madrid controlled, they rarely got out of second gear, and their failure to score a second goal, left the door open for an unlikely equaliser.
On reflection, though disappointed not to win the game, Mourinho will accept that the result is good enough to put his team very much in the driver’s seat for qualification from the tie, with the return leg to come at the Bernabeu in three weeks. CSKA will, at least, head to Spain with a glimmer of hope, thanks to Wernbloom’s debut strike.