I'm going to try to keep this as analytical as possible, but if you're a Chelsea fan you're still buzzing after yesterday's match against Napoli and I'm no different. Exuberence is the order of the day.
Roberto di Matteo got things right with the formation. His 4-2-3-1/4-4-1-1 was an obvious choice, designed to minimise the damage that Napoli's wingbacks could do while also allowing Chelsea's fullbacks to take care of Ezequiel Lavezzi and Marek Hamsik. This was more or less the same shape that Andre Villas-Boas used in Napoli. It was, however, nothing like the same team.
Roberto di Matteo was faced with several interesting selection decisions. Raul Meireles was suspended, so using the Meireles-Ramires pivot that was deployed in the Stadio San Paolo was never an option. Michael Essien was always the sensible choice in midfield, but di Matteo made the brave decision of putting Frank Lampard alongside him. This is being portrayed as being a very easy call, but it really wasn't - Lampard is not a player you'd expect to be playing deep in midfield against a dangerous attacking team, and his inclusion was, seemingly, a gamble: Attack for defence.
Except it wasn't. I wrote a piece about how Lampard could fit into a pivot because his defending was adequate and his distribution excellent, but that underestimated his contribution to yesterday's match - he won the ball eight times in the middle and pressed Walter Gargano to the point that the little Uruguayan lost his passing range entirely, completing only two in three of his successful attempts. When you look at the role of Gargano in getting the ball to Napoli's fearsome front three, Lampard's ability to disrupt him while still playing a full part in Chelsea's own buildup play was incredibly helpful.
In the defence, David Luiz was included over Gary Cahill, whom he was benched for over the weekend. There's a perception that Cahill's a stronger defender than David Luiz, but that's only really true when a team goes aerial. On the ground, the Brazilian might be the only Chelsea defender capable of regularly shutting down the likes of Edinson Cavani, and although he makes mistakes it's nights like yesterday that make you realise just how good he is. David Luiz won the ball nine times and made seven successful clearances in the process. Another decision vindicated.
The final interesting choice was the selection of Ramires on the left wing. Ramires is a versatile central midfielder who's more than capable of playing anywhere on the right, but as far as I'm aware this is the first time he's been asked to sit on the left flank. Chelsea's lack of a left winger caused Andre Villas-Boas problems when he tried to shift Juan Mata to the centre, and Ramires - presumably selected in order to track the sublime Christian Maggio - was an innovative solution to the problem. I'm not entirely sure it worked, for reasons I'll get into later.
Key Moments - Injuries & Substitutions
Although Chelsea put in an impressive performance yesterday, it's important to remember that we were on the back foot at the start. One moment changed that: Maggio's injury. Although the trident gets most of the plaudits as far as Napoli are concerned., Maggio's every bit the player they are. For the first twenty minutes, he had no problem getting free of Ramires, who was theoretically assigned to track him, and the wingback was crucial in Napoli's attacking threat over that span.
Then something went wrong. I haven't watched the match again to figure out just when he got hurt, but he was hobbling noticeably for several minutes before Ramires' opener, when came as a result of Maggio being unable to close him down. With all the time in the world to pick out a cross, it was virtually impossible to miss Drogba's great run, but a healthy Maggio makes that play far more difficult.
Eventually the Italy international was forced off, with Andrea Dossena replacing him and Juan Zuniga moving over to the right. This gave Chelsea a favourable matchup on both sides of the pitch. Branislav Ivanovic suddenly springing to life when confronted with the 'threat' of Dossena was no surprise, and Zuniga's change of position allowed Ramires to help Ashley Cole deal with Hamsik, who suddenly got much quieter as a result. Dossena was also the one who gave away the penalty that allowed Chelsea to take the match to extra time.
This is Napoli's dirty secret. Their first-choice players are almost universally excellent (although they could probably do with two top-level centre backs), but their depth is extraordinarily weak, and as soon as one of their key players go down, they're in real trouble. Maggio's injury led to the first Chelsea goal; his absence led to the Blues outplaying their guests for the rest of the match. If there's a turning point in the tie, this was it.
The substitutions di Matteo made also had a pretty major impact on the game. Fernando Torres was initially a straight swap for the relatively ineffective Daniel Sturridge, but when Juan Mata made way for Florent Malouda, Chelsea shifted to a 4-4-2 that Napoli couldn't really do much with. Ramires was shifted back to the right wing, and his excellent play there led directly to the winner. I know pulling Mata is never a popular move, especially for a player who's been as poor as Malouda this season, but it was the right one in this case.
The final substitution was the injured John Terry being pulled for Jose Bosingwa, with Branislav Ivanovic moving infield as a result (which made his run for the final goal even more hilarious in retrospect). When this move was first made, I was skeptical. Gary Cahill was on the bench and is a better centre back than Ivanovic, so I was expecting a one for one swap. However, I suspect what di Matteo was trying to do was to remove Terry while increasing pressure on Dossena's flank, and Bosingwa's a reasonable way of doing that.
- Two goals virtually direct from corners, the other two from wide positions. Where's this been all season?
- A few weeks ago I ran the numbers - the only Champions League calibre team to have beaten Napoli this year was Bayern Munich, who won 3-2 at the Allianz Arena. Earning a win against this side is no mean feat no matter what anyone will try to tell you.
- This will be painted as a victory for the 'old guard'. It wasn't - it was a victory for the team. Everyone played well, from the veterans to the newer players. That's all anyone's really hoping for from Chelsea anyway, and portraying the likes of Drogba, Terry and Lampard as separate from the rest of the guys isn't really fair.
- Roberto di Matteo is emotional sometimes: