Napoli's Edinson Cavani enhanced his already gilded reputation and the art of defending among Europe's elite has gone to pot
Such was the excitement after Napoli's latest theatrical statement on the Champions League stage, one of Gazetto dello Sport's columnists defined their frontman, Edinson Cavani, as "unique in the world". The Uruguayan is certainly enjoying a golden period, and has arguably worked his way to the top of the list of centre-forwards coveted by the wealthiest. Another outstanding performance against Chelsea yielded a goal (his 24th of the season), an assist, and a hand in the other as his movement created space for his fellow assassin Ezequiel Lavezzi to score. Napoli's three tenors, as they alongside Marek Hamsik are called, have enough in their armoury to make opposition defenders squeal like sopranos.
Without wishing to second guess what goes through the mind of Roman Abramovich, it would be understandable for him to have observed Cavani and begin thumbing a metaphorical cheque-book. That said, the labours of Fernando Torres are an ongoing lesson that throwing money at something is no guarantee of a happy ending.
Besides, Avramovich – or anyone else for that matter – will find an interesting opponent this summer in Napoli's colourful owner Aurelio De Laurentiis. This is a man who challenged Manchester City's backers to offer more than they have paid out on their entire team if they wished to prise away just one of his "jewels" earlier in the season. Such is his penchant for living as if he was actually in the movies, a couple of years ago he announced his five-year plan for the club with an Oscars-style party on board a luxury liner, none other than the Costa Concordia, moored in the Bay of Naples.
However fascinating it will be to see how far Walter Mazzarri's team progress in this competition, it will be even more telling to see how they fare over the summer. Can they build on this team to make a final push towards winning Serie A? They finished third last term, and are a little off the pace in sixth, but if they can keep their best assets, and bolster at the back, there is no reason they cannot chase their first scudetto since 1990.
It is churlish to be too critical, not when the public are treated to boisterous entertainment of the kind served up in Stadio San Paolo or St Jakob-Park, but the round of 16 has served up some spectacularly slapdash defending. If they are forced to review their games in advance of the second legs, certain players whose job it is to prevent goals may just feel like leaving the video room. In no particular order (OK, maybe one deserves to lead the pack) Arsenal, Zenit, Benfica, Napoli, Chelsea, Basel and Bayern Munich did not cover themselves with defensive glory. Even Internazionale betrayed their massed experience by switching off for a set play in stoppage time to concede an advantage to Marseille, while Real Madrid were criticised for sloppy marking in allowing CSKA Moscow to grab a late equaliser.
At half-time in the compelling attack-fest between Basel and Bayern, mystifyingly locked at 0-0 despite the flurry of chances at both ends, Ray Wilkins sniggered that we would not be seeing either of these teams in the final because of their defending. Perhaps we won't. But if we are relying on a defensive masterclass for pointers of who may end up with the trophy, we are still none the wiser.
Last summer, when Manchester United were firming up their bid for David de Gea, the deal was put on hold until the young Spaniard had competed in the Under-21 European Championship. De Gea ended up winning the competition with Spain, who defeated Switzerland in the final. At the other end of the pitch stood another young keeper brimming with promise. A self-confident boy with talent to burn, the runner-up Yann Sommer went back to his boyhood club, Basel, while De Gea signed up for his high-profile move to Old Trafford.
United became familiar with Sommer themselves during this Champions League, and the Swiss 23-year-old this week planted another feather in his cap with an immaculate display to thwart Bayern Munich.
As a foundation for Basel's victory, you could not have asked for more. Although their defending was loose in the first half, they tidied themselves up in the second half, and enjoyed the security of having absolute faith in the keeper behind them. Sommer did everything right. His positioning, reading of angles, agility, strength and courage were top class.
Basel have invested heavily in their youth system and are brave enough to use the best of them liberally. Half the team who gave themselves a wonderful head start against Bayern have been at the club since their teens (and Napoli's Gokhan Inler is another graduate who had a good week). Midfield starlet Xherdan Shaqiri has already signed a pre-contract agreement to join Bayern in the summer. After that, Sommer is Basel's most valuable asset. The one thing that the club have in their favour is the feeling that the local lad is in no hurry to abandon ship, and that he would be content enough to develop in an environment where he is at home and not under uncomfortable scrutiny for another season or so. Their players, rather like their young coach, seem remarkably grounded. "My team have unbelievable willpower, a good sense of who they are and a healthy self-confidence," said Heiko Vogel.
While under no illusions they remain underdogs, Basel are more than capable of an away goal in Munich in the return leg. During the group stages, seven of their 11 goals came on their travels, where they left a goalscoring impression at every stadium they visited. Then it is up to Sommer and company to man the barricades.
Not an enormous one. Real Madrid still look like strong favourites despite the irritant of conceding an equaliser at CSKA Moscow with the last kick of the match. Although it obviously was not a small moment in the life of Pontus Wernbloom, a member of Real Madrid's Swedish supporters club whose perma-grin was bright enough for a toothpaste advert after scoring against his favourite team on his Champions League debut, José Mourinho was unruffled by his team's rare slip. "It's not a drama," opined the coach. "I'm not happy but I am not all that sad. Last year against Lyon it was a similar situation at this stage and we managed to win the second leg at home."
Congratulations are due all the same to the Russian side. They are the first team whose name does not start with "B" and end with "A" and come from Catalonia to avoid defeat by Real Madrid since Racing last September.
Chelsea's beleaguered coach André Villas-Boas was far from the only one to have hoped for some light relief from the Champions League, only to find the gloom intensified. Inter and Bayern, in particular, are clubs who had reason for optimism around the time of the knockout draw in December, but now feel uncomfortably hot and bothered.
Claudio Ranieri, overseeing Inter's second great crisis of the season, was left crestfallen by André Ayew's matchwinner at the Vélodrome. He was left ruminating on that famous law that determines your toast will always fall butter-side down. "When things go wrong then they really go wrong," he lamented. The Nerazzurri have now lost six of their past seven games, failing to score in all of those defeats. To top it all, Maicon suffered a nasty injury during the game.
Inter played OK, but could not see the funny side as Marseille noted cheerfully that they had beaten them with a classically Italian performance: safety first, with a sting on the counterattack. Ranieri continues to try to put on a brave face, and obviously has to sound hopeful that the situation is retrievable at San Siro. He was asked about whether the situation demands a patient approach or required a siege. "Lay a patient siege!" he exhorted.
The Inter players are deeply unhappy. "We are very bitter at this situation," said the captain, Javier Zanetti. A quarter-final place appears to be in reach for L'OM if they can keep cool.
Bayern's setback is not quite as lamentable but their frustrations are also palpable. After their authoritative start to the season, this winter blip is troubling. With a run of two wins from five in the Bundesliga they have slipped behind Borussia Dortmund – and a return to Europe was billed as inspiration to kick-start a new run of form. Well … that was the theory.
Mario Gomez, so powerful in the group stages but well-marshalled in Basel, admitted this is a challenging period. "We're going through a difficult phase," the striker said. "We recognise that the situation is getting serious but we need to remain calm. We've still got the return leg at home and we'll need to show our true colours there." Manuel Neuer added to the sense of frustration: "It's just not happening for us at the moment."
The coach, Jupp Heynckes, spoke of alarm bells ringing, but of all the clubs disappointed by their first leg, Bayern are probably best-placed to recover. With the exception of Arsenal, everyone has something to cling to for the second leg. Even Chelsea. Thanks to Ashley Cole's nomination for save of the round, AVB may be feeling down but he is not yet out.