Another huge Champions League game this week, as one Italian team welcomes another English team in the first leg of this encounter. Its Napoli v Chelsea today, the Azurri versus the Blues. A ‘Battle of the Blues’ if you will, as the Stadio San Paolo in the city of Naples, Italy hosts another potentially-explosive Champions League Round-of-16 game.
Napoli are currently placed 6th in the Serie A table and and their domestic form has been inconsistent at best. But make no mistake, they are an extremely dangerous side with a potent trio of attacking players up front in Cavani, Lavezzi and Hamsik. They will be especially dangerous at home, with their spirited crowed oft considered to be their ’12th man’. And lets not forget that Napoli had a major role to play in the elimination of Champions League debutants and ‘World’s Richest Football Club’ Manchester City during this year’s group stages, and it was a comprehensive 2-1 when City visited San Polo, with none other than Edinson Cavani doing most of the damage.
The big man is, once again, confident that his team has what it takes to eliminate another English team from the competition. Safe to say, the Napoli team will be high on confidence after not only making it this far into the UCL, but progressing from what was the ‘Group of Death’ this year. Their coach Walter Mazzarri however thinks that his players are the underdogs here here and Chelsea’s experience in the UCL will have a part in how events unroll tonight and over the course of the two legs.
Napoli usually line up in a 3-4-3 formation. Tactically they are an interesting team to watch – without the ball, their two defensive midfielders drop deep, almost in line with their three defenders to form a back-5. With the ball, the play a 3-4-2-1 (a slightly variated 3-4-3), with Hamsik and/or Lavezzi remaining central and sticking close to the forward up front Edinson Cavani. They stick to their formations very well and in typical Italian style, are very disciplined without the ball, as was seen in the Manchester City game.
Their line up should be as expected – with Captain Paolo Cannavaro at CB and the likes of Gokhan Inler (an excellent buy from Udinese this summer) and Walter Gargano in the heart of their midfield. Up front too should be as expected, with Marek Hamsik and Ezequiel ‘Pocho’ Lavezzi playing just behind Edinson Cavani. All three are extremely agile players, have plenty of pace to burn and are clinical in front of goal.
A defeat will be a huge blow to Chelsea, but an even bigger one for the man at the helm of affairs – Andre Villas-Boas, who has come under increasing scrutiny owing to his team’s bad run of form this season, which has seen them drop out of top-5 in the domestic table and underperform in the domestic competitions.
Make no mistake, this will be a tough game for Chelsea, a true test of their ability, confidence and resilience. Their captain and a central figure in their team (on-field and off) John Terry looks set to miss out today, as reports say he has failed to recover from the knee injury he suffered. Which, in all probability means Gary Cahill will be handed his Champions League debut. He will play alongside David Luiz, who, lets hope for Chelsea’s sake, is not being controlled by a 10-year old on a PlayStation tonight. Luiz has regressed as a player and a CB this season under Villas-Boas , and has a habit of foraying deep inside enemy territory with the ball, leaving space to be exploited behind him, leaving his defense exposed and thus much more prone to a counter attack. His defending basics are weak and he will most certainly be targetted by the Napoli front-three tonight.
Villas-Boas could perhaps look to move Branislav Ivanovic to the center the place of the adventurous-yet-error-prone David Luiz, but that move could potentially backfire, since Ivanovic is at his best at right-back rather than in the centre and moving him to the centre in a game of this magnitude could have catastrophic consequences. In case Ivanovic does play in the center, Napoli will look to test his replacement Jose Bosingwa. Bosingwa’s is an interesting story, he started out really well under Villas-Boas in the domestic league, but after a few games where he really shined has now become a liability, and it is evident why he was a squad player under Carlo Ancelotti. Even is Chelsea have Ivanovic playing RB and Luiz-Cahill in the middle, Bosingwa could be deployed as a makeshift LB, since Ashley Cole is still 50/50 to start today.
In midfield, Villas-Boas should start Juan Mata in the centre (behind the front three), where he is a much better player than when he plays on the wings, as explained by Michael Cox in his piece on The Guardian. Chelsea have options in the centre of the park – Essien, Ramires, Romeu, Mikel and Miereles. Miereles and Ramires will most certainly be dropped in favour of two more defensively-sound players (Essien and Romeu in all probability), which is what is required of Chelsea here. Up front, Didier Drogba should start in place of Fernando Torres, whose poor form continues and has now gone 20 games or nearly 1300 minutes without scoring! Torres himself has acknowledged his poor form in front of goal, and one thinks a loan spell in the lower echelons of English football just might’ve done him and his shattered confidence a world of good.
But more importantly, in case Cole is not fit to start (or even if he is), expect Daniel Sturridge to be dropped in favour of either Salomon Kalou or Florent Malouda, both of whom will provide more defensive cover on the left side of Chelsea’s formation.
THE ITALIAN JOB
It will be an interesting battle tonight. And Chelsea might be taken by surprise since they have not faced a lot of teams playing a 3-4-3 especially in the recent past. The Chelsea team is low on confidence and behind-the-scene problems a plenty at the Bridge – including Villas-Boas having lost the backing of his players, player revolts, players supposedly undermining Villas-Boas, heck even ex-managers undermining Villas-Boas and what not – an attacking Napoli side should come all guns blazing here and will be looking to put this tie to bed in the first 90 minutes of this encounter. It is not mission impossible for Chelsea, they need to be disciplined and resolute. Defensive resolve could earn them a draw, which would be nothing short of a victory for them.
Villas-Boas has appealed for patience and asked for the time that it requires for his ‘project’ to bear fruit. However with the trigger-friendly Roman Abramovic circling the waters, some crucial weeks and games lie ahead for Andre Villas-Boas. Patience is running thin in Roman’s camp as well as with the Chelsea faithful. Being on the losing end of these games could be in the final nail in the coffin for AVB.
UPDATE: John Terry ruled out of the Napoli game, and could remain sidelined for as long as 2 months!
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