Blues fans still hold out hope of a dramatic turnaround on Wednesday against Walter Mazzarri's wily Napoli side, but all logic and recent evidence is against them
By Liam Twomey
It is a remarkable sign of the times that on Wednesday evening, the mood around Stamford Bridge will be one of hope rather than expectation.
For once upon a time, Chelsea looked invincible at home. In the three years and three months of Jose Mourinho’s tenure, this fashionable patch of west London became one of football’s true fortresses. Of 95 matches played in all competitions, only three were lost. Opponents arrived with varying levels of belief, but invariably left as one - with nothing.
As John Terry and co. prepare for the visit of Napoli knowing a 3-1 first-leg deficit must be overcome in order to keep their Champions League hopes alive, Blues fans will be praying to see just one more Mourinho-esque home performance. Unfortunately, all logic and recent evidence is against them.
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"In all honesty, I'd have backed Napoli to get through this one even if Chelsea had managed to pull it back to 3-2 at the San Paolo. Chelsea's gameplan will be pretty much set up for Napoli to break on their hosts with ease, with their counter-attacking verve likely to be given an extra injection with every attack that the Blues themselves build.
"Chelsea have already proven with their display in Naples that they just can't cope with the Napoli front three of Lavezzi, Cavani and Hamsik, and I don't see a return for John Terry doing anything to change that. Terry has always excelled as a leader and a force, but Chelsea will need to be quick and mobile at the back to have a hope of dealing with the Azzurri's triple threat.
"Napoli's defence showed signs of weakness in the first leg, and they were beaten three times by Cagliari on Friday night, but their goal threat is huge, meaning there is a massive hill to climb for Roberto Di Matteo's men."
It is a bloody process which has yielded no winners, but the most significant casualty has been the hope of winning the tournament Roman Abramovich prizes above all others.
Back in 2008, when a loss of balance and the width of a post denied Terry and Chelsea a maiden Champions League crown in Moscow, the inevitable feeling of devastation was tempered by the sense another chance would soon come for both player and club.
Since then, however, the dream has slowly drifted further and further away, with the Blues controversially edged out by Barcelona in 2009, out-thought by Jose Mourinho’s Inter in 2010 and simply out-played by Manchester United in 2011.
In fact, Chelsea have not won any of their last five home knockout matches in Europe’s premier club competition, and there are now serious question marks as to whether they still have what it takes to compete once the tournament reaches its business end.
Furthermore, the brutal sacking of Andre Villas-Boas and unlikely succession of Roberto Di Matteo have done little to heal the rifts within the notoriously fractious Blues dressing room, and it is unlikely recent changes will be enough to give them stomach for the fight.
Against this backdrop, a two-goal first-leg deficit at home – a position which Chelsea have failed to recover from three times before – is a nightmare situation. It also happens to be against a nightmare opponent.
A brief glance at the Serie A table is enough to tell you Napoli are far from the best team in Italy, never mind Europe. With just 12 wins from 27 matches, they lie fourth, 11 points behind leaders AC Milan. But this, of course, is far from the whole story.
Despite their underwhelming domestic form, Walter Mazzarri’s side are a different beast in the Champions League. Their counter-attacking philosophy within the confines of a 3-4-3 formation is unusual, but both Manchester City and Villarreal can testify to its effectiveness.
Massed ranks in defence ensure the Neapolitans are rarely overrun – they have lost just one game by more than two goals this season – while lightning raids up the pitch when possession is regained ensure attackers Ezequiel Lavezzi, Marek Hamsik and Edinson Cavani are frequently afforded sufficient space to showcase their devastating skills.
Napoli’s exceptional ability to exploit the transition between both penalty areas suggests they are perfectly poised to land a sucker punch on aggressive opponents. In the first leg, Chelsea decided to attack and paid the price. This time there is not even a decision for the Blues to make, and Lavezzi, Hamsik and Cavani should reap the rewards.
If Chelsea’s tactical predicament is less than encouraging, recent form offers small comfort. A run of one win in seven matches in all competitions cost Villas-Boas his job and, while Di Matteo has presided over victories against Birmingham and Stoke, only the most one-eyed Blues fan would argue this represents a genuine revival.
Napoli, on the other hand, are riding high on the crest of a wave generated by six consecutive wins, including the notable scalps of Chelsea, Inter and Fiorentina. Add in the fact that they have triumphed in all four Uefa ties in which they won by two goals in the first leg, and Mazzarri has good reason to be supremely confident about his side’s prospects.
Mission Impossible it is not, but Chelsea fans are rightly bracing themselves for the worst.
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