Villas-Boas teetering on the brink
Andre Villas-Boas' beloved project went up in smoke in the shadow of Mount Vesuvius last night.
The Chelsea manager's belief in players like Raul Meireles proved calamitously costly, leaving an ordinary defence exposed time and again to the counter-attacking verve of Napoli's Ezequiel Lavezzi and Edinson Cavani.
Chelsea spent significant amounts of time in possession in this Champions League round of 16 first-leg clash, yet they had only Juan Mata's goal to show for it. Mata's strike proved the falsest of dawns.
Their defence was too vulnerable, David Luiz and Gary Cahill caught out too frequently. How they missed John Terry, who undergoes an exploratory operation on his knee today and is expected to be out for up to six weeks.
This was a chastening evening for Chelsea and the Premier League. It's not over, of course. Chelsea will still believe that they can recover on March 14 at Stamford Bridge but they must beware going gung-ho with Lavezzi and Cavani about.
From the opening skirmish of a madcap match, Napoli's threat on the counter had been clear. Even at 1-0 down, the Italians exuded menace, soon turning this game on its head with three goals, assisted by Chelsea's haphazard defending.
From the opening whistle, Napoli instantly drilled the ball at Jose Bosingwa, starting at left-back with Ashley Cole on the bench.
Frank Lampard sat on the bench, until ignominy engulfed Chelsea and they were 3-1 down and Villas-Boas relented. His teamsheet had been a statement of intent, a riposte to the old guard like Lampard, but it was more a suicide note. He had just taken the greatest gamble of his coaching career.
It was not simply the sight of the stewards in the away section sporting hard hats that signalled this was going to be a tough night.
Napoli's famed attacking trident was soon spotted, its cutting edge glinting menacingly in the San Paolo floodlights.
Cavani, described as "amazing" by an admiring Villas-Boas, was soon testing and beating Chelsea's offside trap, racing in behind Cahill. He should have scored after seven minutes, denied by a fine save from Petr Cech.
Marek Hamsik then targeted Bosingwa, whose hamstring soon overstretched. Cole duly arrived.
Napoli's defence was never completely convincing, and Chelsea dared to dream after 27 minutes. What should have been a routine clearance for Paolo Cannavaro turned into a disaster. Daniel Sturridge, found by Didier Drogba on the right, had sent in a fairly meek cross which hit a bobble, deceiving Cannavaro, who shanked his clearance up in the air. The unmarked Mata pounced, volleying it firmly past Morgan de Sanctis.
Napoli were stunned, Chelsea jubilant. Yet not all of Villas-Boas' players celebrated with Mata. His defenders, particularly Luiz and Cahill, seized the opportunity to host a quick summit conference in how to deal with Napoli's attackers. Given their later blunders, they could have done with a longer confab.
Chelsea were impressing for now. From a Mata corner, De Sanctis flapped, Luiz lost Cannavaro but headed over. Huge chance. Huge miss. Huge moment in this tie.
From possibly 2-0 up, Chelsea were soon 1-1. Not for the last time, they were too slow to react decisively to unfolding danger.
When Lavezzi collected possession 20 yards out, Meireles was totally embarrassed by the Argentinian's twitch of hips and sleight of foot. Suddenly the goal opened up and Lavezzi fired irresistibly past Cech.
Still Chelsea threatened on the break, still they gave their fans hope. Ramires went on a buccaneering run but shot wildly over.
Meireles then acquired a caution for fouling Gokhan Inler, so ruling him out of the Bridge return.
A 1-1 half-time scoreline would have been acceptable, but Chelsea's concentration dissolved on the cusp of the interval. Deep into the three minutes of injury-time, Chelsea's defensive frailties were again brutally exposed. Hugo Campagnero had rampaged forward, laying the ball off to Hamsik on the right.
Hamsik stroked the ball back to Inler, who lifted it across towards the far post and there was Cavani, stealing in ahead of the sluggish Branislav Ivanovic, playing the poacher with his shoulder.
Chelsea actually started the second half the stronger, pushing Napoli deep.
But then Lavezzi seized on hapless defending by Luiz, dispossessing him and squaring to Lavezzi. The ball flew past Cech. Luiz continues to look like a midfielder on nervy work experience in defence. Chelsea never yielded lightly, never stopped looking for a life-line.
Yet Napoli should have made it 4-1 but Christian Maggio's shot was cleared off the line by Cole.
As the game melted away, as the tifosi lit their flares, Villas-Boas' project disappeared in the plumes. (© Daily Telegraph, London)