Rarely over the past eight years have Chelsea gone into a game as underdogs in the Champions League, and even more rarely have they gone into a game in the Champions League with their prospects of qualifying for the next stage looking so slim against a side making their debut in the competition this season.
But that is the proposition that faces Andre Villas-Boas and his bedraggled Chelsea squad, who go into their last 16 first leg tie against Napoli having won just two of their last ten Premier League outings.
Napoli meanwhile demonstrated the threat they pose as they helped dump Manchester City out at the group stage and have turned around their recent poor league form by picking up back to back wins against Chievo and Fiorentinia.
So why are the Serie A outfit being tipped so heavily for victory against a side that has made it to the semi finals twice and to the final once in the last five years?
The counter attack
Napoli are lightning quick on the counter attack, which not only helps them score plenty of goals but also has the effect of pinning their opponents back in their own half for fear of being caught on the break, thus nullifying their attacking threat.
Manchester City found this out the hard way as Napoli sprung from deep to create a three on two attack which was sublimely finished off by Edinson Cavani to give them the lead at the Etihad Stadium earlier this season.
Christian Maggio is excellent at launching these attacks and can take numerous players out of the game with his swift movement, in the process setting up Napoli’s fearsome trio…..
Edinson Cavani. Ezequiel Lavezzi and Marek Hamšík - these three form one of the most potent attacking units on the continent.
Cavani has 15 goals in Serie A already to add to his four goals in the Champions League, with plenty of Europe’s top clubs declaring an interest in signing the Uruguayan, while Hamsik and Lavezzi float around behind him dangerously and find pockets of space to exploit.
Chelsea’s defensive line will not only have to be mindful not to be caught out by the pace of these three but also not to be drawn out of position by Lavezzi and Hamsik that would give room for others to exploit.
Five men defence
While most wax lyrical about Napoli’s attack, it is there defence that has perhaps been the key reason as to their success in the Champions League thus far, with their back five proving particularly difficult to break down at home.
The Partenopei went on a run of 573 minutes without conceding at home in Europe before Manchester City and Bayern Munich found the back of the net in the group stages while in Serie A they possess the third best goal difference in the league having shipped just 24 goals in 24 games.
Part of their strength comes from the full-back system used by manager Walter Mazzarri which sees three solid centre-backs - usually Paolo Cannavaro, Hugo Campagnaro and Salvatore Aronica – joined by two rampaging full-backs when the opposition have the ball to form a five man wall at the back.
The system works especially well with Napoli’s counter attacking style as both full-backs can quickly join in at the opposite end – Chelsea must stop the widemen from enjoying a free reign to do as they please if they are to emerge from the first leg victorious.
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