Thursday, March 15, 2012

We ain't got no his-to-ree.

Last night, against all the odds, Chelsea overcame their 3-1 first leg deficit against Napoli to win 4-1 at Stamford Bridge, 5-4 on aggregate, to go through to the quarter finals of the Champions League. They gave a tremendous performance, easily one of their finest of what has been an otherwise highly disappointing season. Roberto di Matteo, the interim manager, picked the side that many feel AVB, his hapless predecessor should have chosen (aside from John Terry, who was injured three weeks ago). He stuck with the old guard of Lampard, Terry, Drogba, Cole. These men, and all the other Chelsea players, repaid him in kind with a team effort that was nothing short of Olympian.

The game began cagily for Chelsea; Napoli’s attacks were plentiful and incisive. The Italian side, very much the flavour of the month due to their ultra-attacking 3-4-3 formation, looked to cause Chelsea problems from every angle and Cech made several good saves when the match was hanging at 0-0. Indeed, so against the run of the play was Drogba’s goal at 28th minute that it felt like a total surprise.
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The goal, a bullet header from Drogba following a smart cross from Ramires, knocked the wind out of Napoli’s then full-power sails and Chelsea looked galvanized. Before half-time Sturridge could have made it 2-0 on the night if not for some errant finishing.

Napoli, for all their fluid play, had one notable Achilles heel, and that was that when the ball was crossed into their area. This was exemplified two minutes into the second half, when Frank Lampard’s – so notably absent from the starting XI that lost 3-1 in Naples – crossed and John Terry, back from injury, got his head on the end of it. Two headers for Chelsea, two goals on the night, the tie stood at 3-3, with the West Londoners going through on the away goals rule.

But such was Napoli’s potency that nobody doubted they would score at least one on the night. And indeed, eight minutes after Terry put Chelsea ahead in the tie for the first time since Juan Mata’s goal in Naples had given Chelsea some short-lived joy, it was the Englishman’s own haphazard clearance that found Inler. Inler let the ball bounce then positioned his foot perfectly to strike it accurately, and hard, to go through Lampard’s legs and into the back of the Chelsea net. 2-1 on the night, with Napoli 4-3 ahead on aggregate.

With legs getting tired and Chelsea running out of time – if they scored it would simply bring the game to extra time – Di Matteo took of Sturridge, who had ran his legs off in the game and bought on Chelsea’s £50million Fernando Torres. Torres’ pricetag will not be lost on anyone, least of all him, and the fact that he has gone 24 hours without scoring can not be good for his confidence either, but the Spaniard gave a terrific account of himself – complete with Nike headband – when he came on, chasing lost causes and displaying terrific ball retention.

Then on 75 minutes, when Branislav Ivanovic – playing so attacking that he had been perennially in the Napoli penalty area throughout – met a corner with his head, Napoli’s Dossena was judged to have handled it. Frank Lampard stood up to take the penalty, one of the most pressured ones of his life, and with the expressionless precision of a cinematic Clint Eastwood hitman smashed it down the middle. The Napoli goalkeeper got quite close to it, but such was the power of the drive that it hit the back of the net. 3-1 on the night to Chelsea, 4-4 on aggregate, with extra time in place.
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With the painful memories of Moscow, penalties were the last thing Chelsea wanted. After all, Juan Mata had just recently had one saved in the FA Cup against Birmingham (he had also missed in the home game too, up against the same goalkeeper). The ITV commentators informed us that this season, Chelsea had been awarded 9 penalties, and only 4 of them had been scored. It didn’t look good. So Chelsea wanted to win the game in extra-time.

And on the stoke of half time in ET, they were blessed when Branislav Ivanovic was left unmarked in the Napoli penalty area. A cross from Drogba found his right foot and he struck it with a striker’s finish to find the back of the net. Chelsea and Stamford Bridge celebrated riotously and it was just reward for a team who had really given their all that evening.

But Chelsea knew that they could not rest on their laurels in the final 15 minutes, because should Napoli get just one goal, they would be through on the away goals rule. As such, it was all hands to the pump to run down the clock and prevent Napoli from obtaining possession. Didier Drogba revisited his younger, petulant self and gave some fabulous play-acting performances that both riled the opposition and entertained Chelsea fans. Crucially, his diving worked, as more times than not the referee fell for it and it helped use up precious seconds.

The Ivorian could have dusted the game off in the last minute of extra time, when Malouda gave him a peach of a cross, but the 34-year-old Ivorian, who had played all 120 minutes of this thriller, miscued his shot.

No matter. Chelsea saw the game through and when the referee blew his whistle for the end of the game, the celebrations at Stamford Bridge were a picture. Roberto di Matteo ran onto the pitch and embraced and each and everyone of his players, who had played like Spartans tonight. Chelsea knew that they would have to be nothing short of Herculean last night to overcome a two-goal deficit against a spirited Napoli side, and indeed, plaudits have to go to Napoli, who despite losing 4-1, still played marvellously.

Individually, I couldn’t be more proud of the Chelsea players. John Terry truly shone, he led from the back, scored a crucial goal and threw his body on the line to prevent every single Napoli attack. Frank Lampard, so criticised for his role in AVB’s departure from Chelsea, was deployed as a defensive midfielder in di Matteo’s 4-2-3-1 formation and even though it was a role he is not all that accustomed to, played wonderfully, making some tackles that Makelele, the quintessential Chelsea defensive midfielder, would have been proud of. Lampard also showed true grit to take the penalty; he has missed from the spot twice this season for Chelsea, but was unfazed by the past and merely looked to the future as he struck the ball. Didier Drogba, almost anonymous up until he scored, then became the powerhouse Drogba that opposition sides have grown to fear. David Luiz, who’s performance in the first leg was riddled with defensive errors, seemed to have settled in much better with John Terry alongside him, and he, too, made some fabulous interceptions. Even more impressive is that in the dying moments of the game, fatigue clearly got the better of him, but true to the Chelsea cause, he soldiered on. Ashley Cole, Ramires, Torres, Essien, too, were all immense. It truly was a team effort and the smile as wide as the sun on Roberto di Matteo’s face told as much.

Chelsea have had a very turbulent season. Whether or not they’ll even finish in the top four remains to be seen, but considering we have tricky fixtures against City, Spurs, Arsenal and Liverpool to come, I’m not holding my breath. Furthermore, should Chelsea draw Real Madrid, Munich, Barcelona or AC Milan in the CL, they are likely to exit the CL in the quarter finals. But they deserved their moment last night; the Chels showed everything that was good about the team, in a fantastic game that will surely go down in European history. Chelsea are now the only English team left in the Champions League, and after a performance as special as that, the squad can dare to dream.

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