Faltering Chelsea stars 'see Naples and die'
Few first-time footballing experiences startle the senses like a visit to the Stadio San Paolo in Naples, where rubbish tumbles across the concourses, fans knot scarves around their faces, energy crackles down every passageway and the whole amphitheatre radiates unruly passion.
In this beautiful, messy city, Chelsea were encircled in their hotel by glaring Napoli fans who perched on walls, waiting to jeer, waiting to intimidate. A throng of carrabinieri held them off. At the appointed hour, with cold rain falling, the west London convoy set off for a Champions League second-round tie that might determine the fate of Andre Villas-Boas.
With civic chaos, and decrepitude, sometimes, comes good fortune. Had the Naples pitch possessed the smooth bowling green quality of many Premier League surfaces then the ball might not have bobbled over the foot of Paolo Cannavaro for Juan Mata to dart in behind and open the scoring for Chelsea against the run of play on 26 minutes.
Catharsis? Redemption for Villas-Boas? Not for long. A week after Arsenal were pulped 4-0 in Milan, there was more emotional torture for London football as Napoli struck back with a curled right-foot shot from Ezequiel Lavezzi that was a just reward for the Serie A side's enterprise. Across three halves of football, the Italian league gave the English game a lesson.
"See Naples and die" as the old saying goes. Or see it and live. You could write several volumes about the survival struggles of Roman Abramovich's managers. Few, though, have had their prospects tested in such daunting circumstances.
Chelsea are an ageing team, the allegation goes, long on experience, but short on zest and creativity. Who could have guessed when Villas-Boas arrived with a reformist mandate that his future would hang on precisely those virtues Chelsea are trying to evolve beyond: know-how, solidity, power.
Except that the afternoon brought news of John Terry's elimination for between six and eight weeks with a knee injury.
There must have been many days over the past three months when Villas-Boas wanted to steer Terry into a siding and leave him there for a while to get some peace. But this was not one of them. In a bad run of form, the kind of intestinal fortitude Terry brings to these overseas ordeals was bound to be missed.
As ever with a Chelsea manager when the ground shakes beneath his feet, rumour and gossip ran free. This was the biggest team selection of Villas-Boas' short Chelsea career and the gambles were plenty.
Not risking the semi-injured Ashley Cole was one big call. Risking the porous Jose Bosingwa in Cole's left-back role was another, until Cole came on within a quarter of an hour following a hamstring injury to his Portuguese team-mate.
Confining Frank Lampard to the bench for such a tough assignment was another defiant act.
To know, as Villas-Boas does, that Abramovich is grumpy and that the media is full of speculation about more regime change at Stamford Bridge must alter a manager's psychology.
From AVB, as the game knows him, it brought a rebuke for the club's politburo when Bruce Buck (chairman) and Ron Gourlay (chief executive) stood at the back of the room for his pre-match press conference here on Monday.
Defending his position, Villas-Boas said: "These words would be more valuable coming from the top, to you guys, I know."
To many it sounded like a doomed man getting his retaliation in first. Abramovich never speaks to justify his hunches, his whims or the brutality with which he moves to call time on a struggling manager.
With this icy silence from "the top," Buck and Gourlay must appear to Villas-Boas as mere trigger-men for an owner whose helicopter trips to Cobham seldom bring much cheer.
It was at the back of Chelsea's side where alarm bells rang in every position.
Consider for a moment (as some commentators have) that it is the players, not the manager, who are not good enough; that David Luiz is pretty much a non-defender -- a floating spirit from another world; that Bosingwa should have been culled long ago; that Branislav Ivanovic is too wooden to play right-back; and that, finally, Gary Cahill is not yet ready to make the leap to Champions League combat.
Most ominously this suspect back-four assembled in front of a midfield with no defensive specialist.
As things got progressively worse on the pitch, Vesuvius loomed large across the Bay of Naples.
Even dormant, it was not a comforting sight. (© Daily Telegraph, London)