Didier Drogba, John Terry and Frank Lampard were all on target as the Blues overcame a 3-1 first-leg deficit to progress to the Champions League last eight at the expense of NapoliCOMMENT
LONDON -- Didier Drogba frantically waved a blue-and-white flag that was presented to him by a Chelsea staff member. Frank Lampard raised both arms to the heavens and held the pose.
They were the last of the players, bodies exhausted, minds doing cartwheels, to leave the pitch. Neither wanted to. And who could blame them? The veterans, Chelsea legends both, deserved to soak up the acclaim.
By the time they had entered the tunnel that separates the two dugouts, they could reflect on their roles in what will instantly be labelled one of the greatest nights in the club’s history.
The old firm (‘old guard’ seems too gentle for this bunch) have been written off as power-crazed, over the hill and selfish in recent weeks. Often with very good reason, too.
But credit where it is due. By hook or by crook, and with more than a dollop of Lady Luck thrown in, Chelsea weathered the brutal early Napoli storm to deliver a performance of stunning fortitude, resilience and commitment.
It was not especially artistic or aesthetic. What guile there was came from the twinkling feet of Juan Mata. But it was a comeback shimmering with power and personality.
John Terry bowed to injury eight minutes into added time but, three weeks after a knee operation, he was an exceptional influence – heading away crosses, launching his body into seemingly unwinnable challenges and glancing in the header that put Chelsea 2-0 up on the night and gave aggregate advantage for the first time in the tie.
Drogba’s titanic performances are dotted across the Stamford Bridge landscape with less frequency these days but he was immense on Wednesday night.
His magnificent diving header showed his teammates the way after the early dominance of Edinson Cavani and Ezequiel Lavezzi and, while the 33-year-old faded late on and took up a withdrawn striker role behind Fernando Torres, he showed he will not leave the main stage quietly.
Petr Cech was like an ice hockey goalkeeper early on as he used his feet, chest and seemingly every body part to beat away the shots that peppered his goal (including a remarkable seven in the opening 15 minutes).
Ashley Cole and Michael Essien also recovered their poise and assurance after the initial onslaught but none redeemed their reputation (or should it be legend?) more than Lampard.
It was not so much his match-turning contributions – the corner kick that landed on Terry’s head or the penalty that was so emphatically struck it is little wonder the net did not land on the heads of the ecstatic supporters behind the goal. They have been par for the course in these parts for the last decade.
But it was the fact that Lampard looked so outclassed in the opening quarter of a remarkable 120 minutes. He could not get close to the excellent Napoli playmaker Gokhan Inler, who will wonder how on earth he ended on the losing side by such a vast margin, or his sidekick Juan Zuniga. It seemed like the night when the years had finally caught up with the man who will blow out 34 candles on his birthday cake in June.
It was through sheer desire, desperation even, that Lampard clung on in the early rounds, dodged the punches and stayed in the fight long enough to deliver some knockout blows.
The script said that Chelsea were too ponderous and vulnerable to resist the many charms of an attractive and exciting Napoli team. But Lampard, Terry and company didn’t fancy that too much. They tore it up and wrote a story that will be written in Stamford Bridge folklore.
As Drogba, who would have feared before the game that he was lining up to hear the final Champions League anthem of his career, reflected afterwards, “What is important its living moments like this one and I hope that I will still live these moments.”
Of course, this current Chelsea team cannot hold a candle to the might of the Spanish giants Real Madrid and Barcelona, or the German behemoth Bayern Munich, but it possesses redoubtable and remarkable qualities.
It was not always convincing but, by heck, it gave us a game and a night to cherish. The old guard showed it can perform a fabulous new trick.