Preamble: Andre Villas-Boas is currently copping quite a clobbering from many in the media and the stands but Roman Abramovich wisely appears to be more patient and, according to the Villas-Boas, has reassured the manager that he will be given more time to complete his overhaul of a squad that is seriously unbalanced. By my reckoning Chelsea are pretty much where they should be in the Premier League with a team whose erstwhile stalwarts have waned and whose recruitment prior to AVB's arrival has been hit and miss. The manager has been courageous in tackling the problems (and, perhaps, ageing stalwarts) head-on even if he has not always come up with the right solutions so far, often because he does not have right tools (no surefire right-back, striker or right midfielder, dodgy central defence, and no pace anywhere in the team, which could be a problem against Napoli).
Tonight's team selection is interesting. In fact, Jamie Redknapp on Sky has just called it "managerial suicide". Redknapp is particularly critical of the inclusion of Jose Bosingwa at left-back ahead of Ashley Cole, though there are unconfirmed reports that that is because there are concerns about Cole's fintess. John Terry cannot play because of a knee injury that is expected to keep him out of action for two months. Sky's people - especially Frank Lampard's cousin, young Redknapp, think that also leaving out experienced players such as Lampard, Michael Essien and Fernando Torres is absurd but a compelling case can be made for exlcuding them all, the first two are, because of age or injury, not as dynamic as before, and Torres is accompanied everywhere by personal cloud of gloom. Instead Villas-Boas seems to have gone for an attacking, relatively vigorous line-up. This is a game that promises goals.
Napoli: De Sanctis, Campagnaro, Cannavaro, Aronica, Maggio,
Inler, Gargano, Zuniga, Hamsik, Lavezzi, Cavani.
Subs: Rosati, Grava, Dossena, Dzemaili, Fernandez, Pandev, Britos.
Chelsea: Cech, Ivanovic, Cahill, Luiz, Bosingwa, Ramires,
Meireles, Malouda, Sturridge, Drogba, Mata.
Subs: Turnbull, Cole, Essien, Lampard, Torres, Mikel, Kalou.
Sky's panel (well, Redknapp and Souness, not so much Gianfranco Zola) think that Villas-Boas has picked a team to make a point about who's in charge (to dissident players) rather than specifically to win the game. I would suggest that Villas-Boas has picked a team that he thinks he can rely on - physically, tactically and personally.
Meanwhile, much is being made of the offensive menace of Napoli but we should bear in mind that they too have had troubles in the league, having won only nine of 24 matches in Serie A this season. And, as my colleague Evan Fanning (@evanfanning) has just pointed out, last season this (more or less) Napoli team were held to a 0-0 draw at home by a Liverpool side containing Konchesky, Shelvey, Spearing, Poulsen, Jovanovic, Babel and Ngog.
Speaking to Sky, AVB has just confirmed that it was fitness considerations that led to Cole being left out. "he has only had two training sesssions" since his long injury lay-off. "Perhaps if someone gave AVB a glass of water or a throat lozenge he wouldn't have so many problems communicating with his team?" suggests Dominic Cavlan via Twitter.
My colleague Rob Bagchi says that he's been told (by a ironclad source on, um, the internet) that Roman Abramovich was at CSKA Moscow's match tonight rather than in Naples. He does not know what this means. Nor do I. Do you?
I like Jamie Redknapp as a pundit and think he has come a long way since his iffy start. However his reasoning tonight for panning Villas-Boas is befuddling. He seems to have just suggested that Cole, Lampard et al should play because if they don't and Chelsea lose, everyone will ask why they didn't, and therefore the manager is inviting pressure. I wonder if that flip side of that is true: that if Chelsea win, Redknapp will praise the manager for defying the pressure to pick the team that certain pundits demanded?
"I can see Napoli's big three causing Chelsea's back line some real problems tonight," emails Richard Berry. "David Luiz is probably going to end up with footballing pizza-pie all over his face. Hopefully it won't get in his hair though… cheese and tomato would be a nightmare to get out." I predict David Luiz will score and you, sir, will have gooey egg all over your face.
It sounds like a superb atmosphere in the Sao Paolo, where the fans are making a tumultuous din and tickertape is joining the heavy rain in falling to the ground. "Maybe Abramovich wanted to be in Moscow for Maslenitsa, a.k.a. Pancake Week, which started yesterday," blathers Karl Tulinius. "If Wikipedia is to be believed, it seems like a pretty fun time, involving snowball fights and binging on pancakes and cheese. Surely Carnival in Italy can't compare."
1 min: Napoli get the game going and immediately begin applying pressure around the Chelsea box, but the visitors deal with it well.
2 min: Lavezzi is already looking lively, but after some spirited work down the left he miscontrolled the ball after being put through with lovely pass from Inler.
4 min: Cacaphonous whistles denote a Chelsea attack. Sturridge, Malouda and Mata were all involved before Bosingwa's cross from the left dropped into the keeper's arms. Interestingly, although Bosingwa's inclusion was the decision that got Redknapp all worked up, Napoli has so far directed their attacks down the other flank. Mind you, there are only minutes gone so that may not have been worth mentioning. Hey, I took a risk.
6 min: Cech hurtles off his line to prevent Lavezzi from latching on to a long punt from the back. His diving punch clear was not the most emphatic but it was effective enough. All in all, good sweeping by the keeper.
7 min: Campagnaro suffered a cut to his head when jumping with Drogba earlier on and is now sporting a hair net. A disappointingly safe choice. Surely that was a perfect opportunity to don a wig.
10 min: That's a fine save by Cech! But Chelsea will be alarmed at how easily Cavani found freedom in the box. He peeled off Cahill and was quickly found by Hamsik. The Uruguayan striker then fired hard and low from 12 yards but Cech diverted it to safety with his feet.
11 min: Chelsea change: Bosingwa appears to have pulled his hamstring and is replaced by Cole. Jamie Redknapp would not doubt call this a major stroke of luck for Villas-Boas. Let's see how Cole does.
13 min: Meireles loses the ball in midfield and Napoli spring on to another swift counter. Lavezzi dissects the defence with the sort of pass that Chelsea seldom produce, but Cavani failed to time his run properly and is pulled back for offside.
16 min: Lavezzi curls in a freekick. Luiz clears. "With Lent starting tomorrow, what do you think Chelsea should give up for the next forty days?" asks Paul Szabo. Perhaps they should stop giving up easy goals?
18 min: A mighty punt from Cech causes chaos in the Napoli defence. Or, to be more precise, De Sanctis's decision to come charging out of his box in a bid to clear Cech's kick caused chaos, as Malouda beat him to it. The Frenchman was forced wide so crossed to Sturridge before the panicked home defence eventually scrambled the ball away.
20 min: Terrible defending by Ashley Cole, who looks sluggish (even, Jamie R, not fully fit) as Maggio canters past him down and unleashes a fierce shot that Cech has to push smartly to safety.
22 min: Lavezzi skins Cole easily before Luiz hurries across to save his English team-mate.
24 min: Mata sees a bit of the ball for the first time but his attempt to pick out Sturridge is thwarted. Chelsea quickly regain possession, however, and enjoy a bit more possession. They're not doing a hell of a lot it with it at the moment, except, perhaps, testing the crowd's willingness to keep whistling. "Is it my imagination or is Villas Boas (AVB to the cool kids) channeling Inspector Gadget with his trench?" warbles David Fallon.
26 min: Maggio is becoming increasingly prominent, lashing down the right at every opportunity as neither Malouda nor Cole put up much resistance.
GOAL! Napoli 0-1 Chelsea (Mata 27') Chelsea get their reward for their audacious approach, as pestering and presence of numbers helped force a mistake from Cannavaro, who miskicked when attmepting to cut out Sturridge's pass and instead teed up Mata, who slotted under the keeper from 14 yards!
29 min: Chelsea have now scored first in all seven of their Champions League matches so far this season (but only won three of them so far). And here's a bonus stat for you: Cech is the only goalkeeper to have saved a shot from Cavani in this tournament this season. Prior to tonight all four of the Uruguayan's shots on target had resulted in goals.
32 min: Chelsea have curbed Napoli's enthusiasm and are now looking are lookiong the better team and it is the home defence that looks rickety every time the visitors come forward.
33 min: Good defending by Ivanovich, who has been solid so far. He repelled first Zuniga and then Lavezzi as they tried to infiltrate down the right.
35 min: Daniel Sturridge is a thrillign talent but one aspect of his game that he obviously needs to improve is his decision-making: he suffers from a Jermaine Defoe-esque desire to shoot at every half-opportunity even when a team-mate is in a far better position, as Mata was just now. The attack did result in a corner, however, and Luiz nearly doubled Chelsea's lead, rising well to head fractionally over the bar.
GOAL! Napoli 1-1 Chelsea (Lavezzi 38') The most dangerous home player so far was given far too much time on the edge of the box to receive the ball, sidestep Meireles and curled a splendid low shot into the corner!
39 min: Cavani was booked in the aftermatch of that goal for reasons that are not clear. It's unlikely that he punched Campagnaro, but the defender is off the pitch receiving treatment as his head wound has re-opened as blood geysers from it. With the home side down to 10 men, Chelsea create a great chance to regain the lead as Ramires drives through the centre of Napoli's defence ... but blazes over.
42 min: Meireles gets the booking that means he will miss the return leg.
43 min: As Chelsea look increasingly dangerous going forward, Sturridge swings in a cross from the right and Campagnaro nuts clear ... and then holds his bandaged head in pain. Worth preying on that.
GOAL! Napoli 2-1 Chelsea (Cavani 45+1 min) That's an interesting one! Cavani got the jump on Ivanovic to meet a superb cross (from Inler, I think) and sent it past Cech from close range. But with what? The replay suggests that, as the ball bounced up, he helped it in with his upper arm or, perhaps, his shoulder, which would be allowed. No Chelsea players complained. That, perhaps, is where John Terry is missed.
Half-time: That was an engrossing first half. There has been some fine attacking play and dreadful defending from both sides and every indication that there will be more goals in this game. It could easily end 4-4.
Half-time thought: "As a neutral I'd love to see a bunch more goals," announces JR in Illinois. "I'd take three more by Napoli and none by Chelsea. OK, you got me, maybe i'm not all that neutral." With impartiality like that, I can only assume that JR stands for Jamie Redknapp?
46 min: Chelsea set the second half in motion. "I can't help feeling you're missing a key element to tonight's match, namely the incredible atmosphere, which must surely be having an intimidating effect on Chelsea's players," barks Kevin Mackenzie. "They look rattled, don't they? Coping well under the circumstances though." I disagree. I think Napoli look more rattled, though obviously by the stakes rather than the atmos.
48 min: Cech sweeps up again, rushing out of his box to boot clear.
49 min: A bout of Chelsea pressure yields a corner. Luiz goes close again. He couldn't get a firm connection to his effort but it still demand a goal-line clearance.
50 min: True to the pattern of this helter-skleter game, Napoli hurtle down the other end immediately and Cech is forced to make another save from Cavani.
51 min: It's a shot-a-minute now. Malouda's has the latest one, a decent effort on the half-volley from the edge of the area. De Sanctis saves.
53 min: Brilliant tackle by Ramires in midfield to win possesion for Chelsea. He feeds Mata, who let fly from 25 yards. Easy save for the keeper. Telingly, he had Sturridge in a better position but escehwed the pass ... because Sturridge does that so often to him? Selfisness spreads, which is why Sturridge needs to improve on that front.
54 min: Another lightning and incisive attack by Napoli. Lavezzi is sent racing through the Chelsea defence ... but blems wide from 18 yards!
56 min: Cahill slightly lucky to get jsut a yellow for a late tackle in midfield on Lavezzi.
58 min: Drogba flicks on a long throw and Mata meets it onl the volley. Saved by De Sanctis.
59 min: Another promising oportunity wasted by Chelsea. You'd never catch me on a car ferry if P&O's crossings were as poor as Malouda's has been so far tonight.
61 min: Chance after chance for Chelsea now! First Drogba is denied by fine last-ditch defending by Aronica. Then Cahill heads just off target from the corner.
64 min: Cech fields a long-range pot shot from Gargano.
64 min: Pretty trickery by Sturridge down the right but again the subsequent cross lets Chelsea down.
GOAL! Napoli 3-1 Chelsea (Lavezzi 65') Another defensive shambles puts Chelsea in further trouble. Luiz's attempt to clear a Carmagno through-ball led to him booting against Cavani. Cech charged out to try to intervene but the striker got there first and knocked it sideways to Lavezzi, who blasted into the net from 16 yards.
68 min: Cole is nowhere to be seen as Maggio races down the right again to receive a clever pass. But the subsequent cross is shoddy.
70 min: Chelsea changes: Essien and Lampard on, Meireles and Malouda off.
71 min: Essien's first involvement leads to Cavani rolling around the ground like a toddler denied ice cream. Essien clipped his heels, is all.
73 min: Lampard's first involvement is a shot from 30 yards that trickles wide by almost the same distance. "So what was that you were saying [on 16 min] about Chelsea giving up giving up easy goals?" reminds Paul Szabo. "Good call."
74 min: Napoli's attempt to bring some solidity to this crazy game means taking off Lavezzi and putting on Dzemailli.
77 min: If Chelsea had reliable forwards they would be in front by now. Sturridhe has too frequently made the werong decision and Drogba has too often been in the wrong place or unable to have an impact when in the right one. And the crossing has been mostly poor.
79 min: Mata's corner is misdirected. So is the clearance, so Mata gets another chan ce. This time his delivery triggers a melee in the box ... but Napoli eventually hoof it away. If only they had a Luiz-type defender who would have attempted to waltz his way out of danger. "Lampard came on and immediately shot from distance?" question Matt Dony. "That's on my Chelsea bingo card."
80 min: It could have been four for Napoli! Cavani and Hamsik played their way through Cheslea before Cavani cut it back across goal. Cech was eliminated and Maggio arrived to fire into the net but Cole had foreseen the danger and dashed into position to boot off the line!
83 min: Napoli substitution: Hamsik off, Pandev on.
85 min: Freekick to Chelsea about 30yards clear. Drogba is talked out of shooting. Instead Mata clips it towards Drogba in the box but Cannavaro outjumps him to clear.
89 min: There will be at least four more minutes. Plenty of time for another goal.
90+1 min: Good probing by Chelsea but when they finally work Cole into a crossing position, Drogba takes the ball off Sturridge's foot to bog it high and wide.
90+3 min: Lampard Lampards it from 25 yards. Bounced just in front of the keeper, who did well to hold on to it.
Full-time: Chelsea lose but remain in contention. But this tie could come down to which side can punish the others' defensive shoddiness most severely, and all the signs are that Napoli are better equipped to do that. Not Villas-Boas' fault. The second leg promises to be highly entertaining. But England look like becoming an exclusively Europa League zone.