CL Recap: The 'Old Guard' Rises

A night to remember. A moment to savor. A season to endure. More, after the jump:

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Defying Expectations

Twenty-four hours later, I'm still coming to grips with the realities that lay bare in front of us. The word epic gets bandied about far too often for incorrect situations, but it may well be the only apt adjective to truly describe what was an unforgettable night at The Bridge. Despite the odds heavily stacked against their favor, Chelsea somehow rolled-back the proverbial clock and delivered a stinging right hook to Napoli’s underdog darling ambitions. But this wasn't a match decided by tactics, so much as passion. From the opening whistle, the intent was visible on the faces of all those in Blue. They wanted it more. They were hungry. They were strong in the tackle, authoritative in the air, commanding on the ground, disruptive in defense, and forward-thinking with their movement. This was a squad clearly intent on proving a point. In many respects, it was Anti-AVB football (less emphasis on shape and tactics, more focus on discipline and movement). This was a match made of individuals that have, at times this year, been highlighted for single-mindedness and selfishness. Castigated, outcast, and subjected to scrutiny, this band of brothers stood together for two hours, and delivered a modern-day classic.

To summarize the match, at this point, would be moot. Plenty of people have gone to great lengths to give very detailed and explanatory descriptions of what transpired. If you missed it, shame on you. I for one, actually took a sick day to ensure I could witness this comeback. I had my measured belief that we stood a chance, but an outside one at that. Essential to our cause was nabbing an early goal, applying constant pressure, withstanding the waves of counter-attacks, staying disciplined on defense, and, fighting for every 50/50 chance. You do these things, and you win theoretically. But we couldn't rest on our laurels after Didier's scintillating header in the 28th minute. We had to continue pushing for a second, and plenty of credit has to be given to the shape employed (4-2-3-1). The system utilized, while identical to the one used by Andre in Naples, was executed with precision on this evening. Frank found himself alongside The Bison in the double pivot, which was a worry for some of us (seeing as how Frank typically produces more when he's further up the field). But on this day, he was more than up for the challenge. Elsewhere, Bobby chose to field Daniel on the right, Juan through the middle, and Ramires on the left- with the conventional wisdom that he would be able to keep pace with Maggio.

Key moments for us? Several, but just to name a few:

  • Frank's early challenge on Cavanni - just an excellent opening salvo (or as I yelled out when it happened, SHOTS FIRED)
  • Maggio's injury, and Dossena's inclusion - a huge loss for Napoli, he was a menace for us in the first fixture. His removal from the field heavily shifted the tide in our favor (allowing for the space leading to Ramires' cross for Didier's opener). You have no idea how thrilled I was to see Andrea take the field for Napoli- he's an absolute liability.
  • Withstanding the waves of Napoli attacks in the first 20 minutes - it's easy to gloss over this, but Napoli were completely swarming us early in this one. The stats might not show it, but they had created seven clean chances compared to our two at one point early in the proceedings. Obviously, Maggio taking a knock and Didier's goal effectively changed the flow of proceedings.
  • Two goals converted from corner kicks. Remember when we used to do this on a regular basis? It seems in every major match this year, when we've risen to the occasion, we've had at least one goal derived from a direct free kick.
  • Pressure. Wave, after wave, of continuous pressure. If you're looking to break down a door, you can put all your might into one hit, or, you can hammer away at the door with frequent strong shots. The latter, was our strategy and ultimate method for success. Our third goal came from a corner which hit the outstretched arm of a fatigued Dossena. Can't say enough about the impact this forward-thinking strategy had for us yesterday.
  • Impact. Freaking. Substitutions. Bringing Fernando on for Danny was smart, considering Studge seemed to have difficulty finding his stride. And yes, I'll say it, Fernando played well. He had one clean chance on goal that he could have done better with, but he did put some passes into inviting spaces. Malouda (being resuscitated from his slumber) replacing Mata was wise, as the young Spainard looked completely exhausted out there.
  • Bravery, or perhaps more succinctly, playing through the pain threshold. With John and Bob carrying heavy knocks, it was paramount for the guys to gut through this one and continue to demonstrate resolve. And they did. The looks on their faces at the final whistle, the elation mixed with relief, was all it took for me to agree that this was the turning point of our season.

I've said this for months now- there will be a moment that occurs this year that will serve as a catalyst from which our march to the end will commence. Perhaps that single catalyst concept was flawed- in Chelsea's case it appears that our tipping point was a number of events that have combined to form this new dawn of sorts. Sure, we told you this would happen. We did. We said, in plain English mind, that after Andre got the chop we'd rally and go on a massive, confidence-boosting run through the campaign. We did. Don't believe us? Check for yourself. Yeah, we went there. And please understand, we're not trying to take any of the gloss off this win. It was massive on so many levels, inspiring, gut-wrenching, hard, and altogether gratifying. For fans, it was the perfect elixir to ail what's plagued us for weeks. For the players, vindication. For Di Matteo and company, well, just plain awesome when you consider it's his third official match in charge.

For all the stick we get in the press, and for all the negative that many tend to write about us, it remains clear that we are a team in transition. But on this night, it was less about the future and more about the present. With a result being paramount, Roberto relied on the names we've all come to adore, and they duly delivered. And please, lets clarify one key point- age is no factor at this stage in the game. Experience however, is what truly matters at this stage in the game. Gary Cahill might be flummoxed that he didn't get the nod for this one, but Roberto went with David Luiz and John, a partnership that has more than one game under its belt. And in Bob, we had a reliable foil to John's steely gait. It wasn't a perfect performance, but it was a battling one that saw tremendous individual efforts across the board. Ashley, who had himself a torrid time in the first leg, got into the mix, spraying passes across the park. Bane, after Maggio's removal, had a spring in his step and found plenty of space to venture forward. The Bison, who sluggishly walked through the first 45, grew in size and presence by the end of the match, even dropping into defense to cover for the injured Bob. Didier went up and snatched everything out of the skies, Frank showed up in all the right places, Mata drifted in and out of spaces, and came deep to collect the ball, while Ramires ran his socks off.

Credit to Napoli. They came into this match and gave us a hell of a fight. Conventional wisdom suggested they would opt for a more conservative approach, protect their lead, and cruise through to the quarterfinals. But this is Napoli, and that's just not how they roll. So, throwing caution to the wind, they ventured to play their style, and in fairness, it almost worked. I genuinely believe that Maggio's injury was the tide turning point in the match- had he remained, we might not have been so fortunate to net three more times. What's obvious, however, is this was an unorthodox European battle that had little tentative play, and more open end-to-end action. It was reckless, fast-paced, and at times a genuine blur. But I loved it. And I know you all did to. When was the last time we saw our Chelsea get on the gallop and run at teams. Jam the ball into the box, and slamming shots at the net? When, I ask? Under Carlo perhaps. It seems to be a long time coming since we had this kind of an outing, and it was well deserved.

Where we go from here? To the top, naturally. Just kidding, but hell, if we can bottle this performance and drink it weekly, there's no telling where we might end up. And yes, I saw you in the stands Roman. I saw you and Dasha. You looked bemused, then puzzled, then altogether thrilled. Your toys did this. Don't forget that fact. Now please, go give Didier an extension and lets get on with it, shall we?

Carefree friends.


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