Chelsea take on Napoli at the Stadio San Paolo in the Champions League on Tuesday, battling to become the only English team to advance to the quarterfinals this season. It won't be easy. The Partenopei have already dispatched Manchester City (who, like it or not, are a far stronger team than we are this season), and they're the the kind of side that can beat anyone on their day. On Chelsea's day... well, we haven't seen Chelsea have any sort of day in a while, so let's hope the football gods smile upon us in Italy.
Schedule and team news coming up after the jump...
Game Date/Time: Tuesday, February 21st, 7:45 PM GMT (2:45 PM EST).
Venue: Stadio San Paolo, Naples, Italy
TV: FOX Soccer Channel (USA - English), FOX Deportes (USA - Spanish), Sky Sports 2 (UK)
Walter Mazzarri's Napoli are in pretty good shape. Despite a poor start to their domestic campaign, partially due to the manager resting his players in the league to keep them fit for their European matches, they've recently gotten back into the race for the top three and look well placed to end this season in the Champions League spots. Napoli are coming off an emphatic 3-0 win against Fiorentina (resting central midfielder Walter Gargano and goalkeeper Morgan de Sanctis), and their only injury worry is right centre back Hugo Campagnaro, who was withdrawn five minutes into that match, although he'll probably play against Chelsea.
Projected Napoli lineup (3-4-2-1): #1 Morgan de Sanctis (GK), Miguel Britos (LCB), #28 Paolo Cannavaro (CB), #14 Hugo Campagnaro (RCB), Juan Zuniga (LWB), #23 Walter Gargano (CM), Gokhan Inler (CM), Christian Maggio (RWB); Ezequiel Lavezzi (LF), Marek Hamsik (RF); Edinson Cavani (CF).
Chelsea, of course, drew 1-1 against Birmingham City over the weekend. Although that's not a very good result, Andre Villas-Boas will be encouraged by a number of key figures returning to the squad. Ramires, Didier Drogba and Salomon Kalou are all available, which means that we're not going to continue with the Fernando Torres experiment any further and that the midfield is significantly stronger than it has been of late. However, the defence is still looking pretty dicey - John Terry is almost certainly out, while Ashley Cole is unlikely to feature either.
Napoli play a shape Chelsea haven't encountered in recent memory - the 3-4-2-1. We ran into a three man back line last season during the 1-0 home loss to Liverpool, but Kenny Dalglish's side is nowhere near as dynamic as the scheme Walter Mazzarri uses. While the personnel get shuffled around, the shape remains more or less the same game to game - three centre backs, two deep-lying central midfielders flanked by the wingbacks and then the famed attacking trident of Marek Hamsik, Ezequiel Lavezzi and Edinson Cavani.
This isn't news, of course. More or less everyone who followed European football to any extent is aware of the way Napoli play and the threat they pose. Let's dig a little deeper into Mazzarri's side.
Common Attack Patterns
Edinson Cavani - C
Ezequiel Lavezzi - L
Marek Hamsik - H
Walter Gargano - G
Gokhan Inler - I
Juan Zuniga - Z
Christian Maggio - M
Napoli are known primarily as a counterattacking side, and they've definitely got the speed and precision to play effectively on the transition. If Napoli can catch the opponent's right back out of position and then win the ball, they'll quickly cycle to one of Gargano or Hamsik for a long diagonal to Lavezzi, who'll be sitting on the Napoli left near the halfway line, generally well clear of a covering centre back:
This is the most dangerous move in Napoli's arsenal. Once free, Lavezzi has several options. He's more than capable of taking on a player one on one, Cavani will be steaming up the centre, and Maggio will be racing down the right back. All three players are lethal - Lavezzi for his speed and dribbling ability, Cavani for his finishing and Maggio for his vision and crossing. The midfielders and Hamsik will also advance in order to recycle the play into a standard built-up attack in case the counter breaks down, while Zuniga will follow behind Lavezzi to prepare for a possible overlap.
Attacking Napoli on their right means that Lavezzi is more easily covered by the right back, making the sweeping diagonals to the Argentinian more difficult. Instead, Cavani is the main target, normally making a run up the right channel:
Cavani is far less effective than Lavezzi at driving through the defence (although that's no slight against the Uruguayan), so he's less inclined to isolate a player and try to beat him. He'll attempt to feed Hamsik running down the right flank, thread a through pass between the centre backs to find Lavezzi or hit Zuniga with a diagonal. Failing that, he'll cut the ball back to one of the midfielders or very occasionally pull off a long-range effort, which he's quite capable of converting:
When Napoli have possession but are unable to counter (e.g. from goal kicks), the two main mechanisms they use to build up the play are long punts forward, targetting Lavezzi or Cavani, with the goal being knockdowns to Hamsik or the wingbacks, or more deliberate buildup play through the centre backs. Usually, Gargano will drop deep to receive passes from the centre before attempting long diagonals to the wingbacks, but we often see one of the wingbacks dropping back to pick up the ball or, more rarely, a centre back advancing (this is most common with Hugo Campagnaro).
In all cases the primary mode of opening up the defence is to quickly cycle the ball from flank to flank. Once Napoli establish possession in the attacking third Gargano will sit very deep and dictate play, pushing the ball to the right or left and receiving it in the centre if the attack breaks down but possession is retained. From here, there are four main patterns of attack - wingback overloads on either flank and two distinct types of central play. When Napoli are frustrated, they'll also try long range efforts, from which Inler and Cavani are capable of scoring.
With Edinson Cavani as the team's centre forward, Napoli rightly have no compunctions about crossing the ball. All four wide players are competent crossers, so the ball is a threat whether it's at the feet of Hamsik, Lavezzi, Zuniga or Maggio. With the wingbacks so high up the pitch, overloads are common, especially when the opposition wingers fail to track back effectively.
When Napoli do cross, Cavani mostly takes a central run while the opposite sides forward gets the near post, with the opposite wing back (especially Zuniga) picking up anything that's overhit. Left-sided crosses often see a near-post run from Cavani with Hamsik going central and Maggio coming in at the far post, which is effective at generating chances despite Maggio's poor finishing. The central midfielders tend to stay deep in these situations in order to mop up headed clearances and recycle the ball.
Not all overloads result in a cross, however - Napoli will often use the situation to slip in Hamsik or Lavezzi behind the defence, a situation from which they're both capable of beating their man then scoring, providing a low cross across the six-yard box, or cutting the ball back for Cavani or Inler to run onto. It's worth pointing out that Napoli are far more capable of getting behind the defence on the right side rather than the left because of the presence of Hugo Campagnaro, who'll often advance to provide support, allowing for an zone overload even with two defenders present.
Central Attacking Play
Despite the talk of Napoli having difficulty adjusting to teams that sit deep and do nothing but defending, they're very competent at using vertical and horizontal play in the central zone to draw out the opposition defence and open up space. This occurs when the ball is played central and both wide forwards come infield. Typically, Gargano or Inler will find Hamsik between the defence and the midfield and then Cavani and Lavezzi will start diagonal runs behind the centre backs. Hamsik reads the game well enough to improvise if better options present themselves, including chips over the defensive line, dribbles or surprise passes to the wingbacks.
If the centre backs are tracking the forwards and nullifying Hamsik's ability to run into the centre of the area, Napoli will sometimes switch to a different scheme that sees Gokhan Inler push forward into the space vacated by a defender. This can cause absolute chaos in the area - the box ends up being too crowded to shoot through and the defence tends to collapse inwards the ball, leading to a scramble in a dangerous zone.
With the team heavily focused on transition play, Napoli like to win the ball high up the pitch. Rather than allowing their opposition to build from the back, Lavezzi and Hamsik will press the centrebacks aggressively before defensive responsibility switches to the four-man line belt in front of the defence when the ball crosses the halfway line. At this point, Hamsik will act as a fairly defensive winger, Lavezzi will stay high up the pitch and Cavani, who is a very capable defensive player, will reinforce areas that need help.
Inler and Gargano will trade off staying in the middle and moving to a flank depending of which side of the field the ball is on, while the centre backs typically stay very compact, which means that if the wingbacks can be bypassed there's a very good chance of getting a good cross in. Another weakness is that opposing teams meeting resistance can cycle the ball backwards with minimal pressure and switch play quickly. A third is that none of their defenders is actually particularly good at defending. They rely on playing in close support to prevent opposition attacks.
Napoli's habit of pushing their wingbacks so high up the pitch means that they are vulnerable to transitions themselves. If a quick outlet is found to a winger, they're often able to isolate a centre back and then push on to goal, which stretches up and opens huge holes in the back line.
Morgan de Sanctis is what Ray Wilkins has described as an 'unorthodox' goalkeeper. He is typically highly aggressive in commanding his area and is willing to take risks many more conservative goalkeepers would not. As a result, he's prone to bizarre-looking gaffes at times. He's an well above-average shot stopper, however.
Ezequiel Lavezzi and Marek Hamsik are the main corner kick takers, with Walter Gargano taking non-shooting free kicks. The primary targets on set pieces tend to be Cavani (near post), Hamsik (central), Cannavaro (far post) and Maggio (deep, central). Short corner kick routines are not uncommon, although they tend to be less effective for Napoli than long ones, and free kicks are often spread wide while the defence is clustered in the centre. Napoli don't tend to shoot directly from free kicks unless Goran Pandev is on the field.
Napoli appear to play a hybrid zonal-man marking system when defending set pieces, assigning specific defenders to some players but allowing the rest to cover areas rather than individuals. Cavani tends to be assigned to the near post, with the centre backs tracking runs to the back. This leaves a weakness on deeper deliveries that Napoli have yet to address.
When Mazzarri is desperate he'll take off a central defender, add an attacker (Goran Pandev or Eduardo Vargas) and go to a 4-4-2. While this does add a different dimension, exploiting Cavani's ability to knock down the ball for a support striker, none of the substitutes available to Mazzarri is much more than a week replacement for a player already on the team except for Pandev, who is more of an all-around forward. Depth is one of Napoli's major weaknesses, which has been exposed by the squad rotation policy employed by the team so far this year.
Projected Chelsea Lineup
The primary question for Villas-Boas involves shutting down the Napoli attack. In terms of pure football, this requires stopping Cavani and Lavezzi, the main goalscoring threats. If the defence is off its game, there's very little that the manager will be able to do about it - he'll simply have to throw the best defensive lineup out there that he can (i.e. Branislav Ivanovic at right back). If things go wrong, that's what happens when you face absolutely world-class players.
That said, there are obvious tactical remedies to much of Napoli's threats. The three key players from a team perspective are Gargano and the wingbacks, and Chelsea would do very well to play close attention to them. Gargano, who plays very deep, should be man-marked by a competent defensive player. Juan Mata will not be able to deal with him effectively due to Gargano's ability to turn (and Mata's inability to deal with players turning him). Although Frank Lampard isn't noted as a defensive player, he has the ability to deal with Gargano physically and won't get turned around by the little midfielder, although Michael Essien, Ramires and Oriol Romeu are all probably better options. Inler is more of a box to box type, and he's not as important to the attack as Gargano is, although it would be best to follow him around as well.
There are multiple solutions to the wingback problem. Chelsea can rely on the fullbacks to take care of things and then add competent attacking wingers to pin Zuniga/Maggio deeper than they'd like. With Ashley Cole's injury, such a strategy would be easier to enforce on the right side than the left, where you'd expect Ivanovic to be solid. This allows Chelsea to play Daniel Sturridge in order to take advantage of the one-on-one matchup against Napoli's left centre back. The left side will almost certainly require a defensive winger, which means one of Florent Malouda or Salomon Kalou. One would hope we see Kalou there just based on recent form.
In order to deal with Napoli's crossing and set piece ability, it'd be wise to include competent aerial players. For Chelsea, assuming Terry is out, that means Gary Cahill, Didier Drogba and Ivanovic. Pretty simple stuff, although unless Chelsea sort out their comedic defending on set pieces every corner and free kick will be a problem.
The major problem that's left is fitting Mata into all of this. We don't want to create any defensive holes for Napoli to exploit, but without Mata we're more or less toothless, which means he has to play. The only sensible answer I have to this is a mostly-flat 4-3-3, which leaves Mata in the centre but with minimal defensive responsibilities.
Shake all of that up (plus some extras, including who's rested and who isn't) and you get this:
Chelsea starting lineup (4-3-3): #1 Petr Cech (GK); #17 Jose Bosingwa (LB), #4 David Luiz (LCB), #24 Gary Cahill (RCB), #2 Branislav Ivanovic (RB); #6 Oriol Romeu (CM), #10 Juan Mata (CM), #5 Michael Essien (CM); #21 Salomon Kalou (LF), #11 Didier Drogba (CF), #23 Daniel Sturridge (RF).
Here's how it would set up, with Napoli in red and Chelsea in blue:
The key here is Romeu, which could be very dangerous. He'll be tasked with pick up Inler when he comes deep as well as helping the defence with Hamsik and Lavezzi when they come infield. The last time Romeu played was in the second half of the 3-3 draw against Manchester United, where he completely failed to pick up Wayne Rooney. He'll have to do much better here or Chelsea will be in deep trouble.
Ed note: I've left out Ramires, which many are asking me about. Certainly he's an option here at CM (replacing Romeu or Essien) or at RF, where he's played before and would provide far more defensive support for Ivanovic than Sturridge would. For me, however, he's not the defender Romeu or Essien is and is also more prone to giving up possession by making what would be in this case ill-advised attacking runs, and Ivanovic doesn't really need that much support. Also, he's just back from a knee injury and played 90 minutes of football on Saturday.
Can the Blues win at the San Paolo? Certainly. I don't think they should be going for a 0-0 draw. Napoli's attack (and especially counterattack) might be dangerous, but their defence is weak and Chelsea should be capable of exploiting that. The order of the day should be to keep possession and to play quick vertical football when holes open up. Risky passes with too many players committed forward are to be avoided as much as possible - patient buildup and long passing should be the order of the day rather than silly flicks and tricks.
This isn't Mission Impossible, and we don't need to hide in a hole. Do that for long enough and Napoli will score. Force them onto the back foot without opening a big door for Lavezzi and Cavani to steal in on, and Chelsea will be fine. That is, of course, easier said than done.