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.
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.
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.
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.
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.