Chelsea step into the lions den when they play SSC Napoli in the Stadio San Paolo on Tuesday night.
Waiting to pounce will be a formidable front three of Edinson Cavani, Ezequiel Lavezzi and Marek Hamsik roared on by 60,000 Neapolitans with the press pack waiting to pick over the bones of Andre Villas-Boas’ should the home side take a significant advantage from the first leg of this last 16 round of the Champions League.
The pressure has increased on the Chelsea boss not only due to a series of insipid displays against the likes of Birmingham City and Everton but also as a result of Arsenal’s 4-0 mauling by Italian opponents, AC Milan, in the same competition last week. With talk of the demise of the Premier League being whispered around the footballing landscape, neutrals are expecting defeat for the Blues and even loyal supporters are approaching the tie with trepidation.
Yet Chelsea have extensive experience at this level – substantially more than Napoli for whom this season is their first amongst Europe’s elite since the days of Diego Maradona – and perhaps this extra savvy could yet prove pivotal to the club’s fortunes. This season the Londoners have already faced a top continental opposition in Valencia with whom they were unlucky to only draw 1-1 at La Mestalla and whom they comprehensively dispatched 3-0 at Stamford Bridge.
And it is the second of these games from which AVB should draw his inspiration.
Tactically, the Portuguese got it spot on that day recognising the Spanish team’s strengths and accounting for them whilst also utilising the key weapons at his disposal. Recognising Valencia’s excellence in retaining possession and waiting for the moment to get behind the opposition, AVB set the team up to sit deep and strike decisively on the break using the formidable power of a certain Didier Drogba. The big man scored twice that day and was the architect for Ramires’ goal that night in a performance that rolled back the years and was reminiscent of his one man demolition job against Bayern Munich in April 2005.
On Tuesday. AVB must extract the same response from the Ivorian with the same game plan.
Napoli’s style is different to Valencia in that they operate mainly on the counter, using turnovers of possession to inflict maximum damage on their opponents. The telepathic understanding of Cavani, Lavezzi and Hamsik is the foundation of manager Walter Mazzarri’s approach. Chelsea must not be afraid to sit back, cede possession and deny them space to build attacks, taking this much-vaunted trio out of their comfort zone.
Drogba must be used in his favoured role of human battering ram. He must be allowed to puff out his chest and lead by example. His endeavour must be the focal point of Chelsea’s ambition.
He must must also be supplied with able and trusted deputies. Frank Lampard has proved it on this stage so many times it barely needs to be mentioned. A scorer in two semi-finals, a final as well as being successful in two penalty shootouts illustrates that fact. But it is his understanding with Drogba that is as important as his goals, the ability to release the striker with a quick look and early pass could be worth his weight in gold. The pace and guile of Daniel Sturridge and Juan Mata will also be a vital component of any positive result.
The team looks likely to be missing its heartbeat with the expected absence of John Terry but that only enhances the need for old heads to take the field in Naples. Michael Essien must surely start alongside Ramires whose dynamism has been sorely missed during his recent injury layoff. Ashley Cole will hopefully be fit enough to resume his duties at left back. Petr Cech will need to shrug off his troubles this season and perform to the level of which we all know he is capable.
All is not lost for Chelsea and hopefully we will see the professional pride of the old guard re-affirm the club’s status amongst Europe’s best. As long as AVB selects them.