Next time Villas-Boas's Chelsea vision may get past the wastebasket

These matches in which the Premier League's top clubs see Naples and die expose a real problem for English football

He is already the first foreign manager in the Premier League whose command of English is too extensive for his own good, and now we know that André Villas-Boas also appears to possess elegant handwriting. The sheet of hotel notepaper that found its way on to the Gazzetta dello Sport's website in the hours before Tuesday night's match — presumably fished out of a waste basket by a member of the Grand Vesuvio's housekeeping staff — is so beautifully inscribed that it could almost be framed and hung in the Moscow art gallery that Roman Abramovich bought for his girlfriend.

The leaf of paper contained a notional Chelsea formation: rather an interesting one, given that it had Daniel Sturridge at centre forward, flanked by Ramires and Juan Mata, with no sign of Didier Drogba or Fernando Torres. Sturridge, who yearns for a central role, would have been delighted had it been for real. Unfortunately for him, it turned out to be fiction, or at least a passing fancy. Neither John Terry nor Frank Lampard, both included in the sketched-out team, made it into the actual starting line-up, for different reasons. Drogba started, with Sturridge out wide and struggling to make an impression on the game.

Whether Villas-Boas had left the paper behind in the knowledge that it would be found, as a kind of black propaganda to fool his opposite number, will probably never be known — assuming he really did write it, of course, although the use of the names "Ash", "Studge" and "Raul" (for his compatriot Meireles) indicated authenticity. After the match the manager explained that his eventual choice of midfield combination was determined by a desire to include two players, Ramires and Meireles, in defensive positions, leading to the exclusion of Lampard. Clearly he was looking for a more dynamic energy than the English veteran can now provide. But, like so much else the young manager has tried over the past six months, it did not work, and Chelsea were overrun by the devoted workers in Napoli's midfield: the perceptive Gokhan Inler and the prodigious little Walter Gargano, assisted by two adventurous wing-backs in Christian Maggio and Juan Zúñiga.

Like Manchester City before them, Chelsea found themselves up against something more than just a team, or even the spectators inside the stadium.

In the unified passion that encouraged the home side it was possible to see the special benefits that can accrue from being a city's only representatives. In Naples there are no divided local loyalties, as there are between the fans of Roma and Lazio, Milan and Internazionale, Juventus and Torino, or in Manchester, Liverpool and London. It was as if Newcastle, Leeds or Stoke were mounting a challenge in the knock-out stages of the European Cup: a very special kind of exhilaration.

These matches in which the Premier League's top clubs see Naples and die also expose a real problem for English football, which is that of absentee owners. There in the tribuna d'onore was Aurelio De Laurentiis, the film producer who saved Napoli from extinction a few years ago, taking pleasure and pride in his creation and, as another goal went in, accepting a smacking kiss on the lips from a woman who may have been his wife.

England's big clubs should be so lucky. How often are the Glazers, Stan Kroenke or Sheikh Mansour seen at matches, sharing the fans' joy and pain? Or even Abramovich, who does turn up sometimes but skipped Tuesday night in Naples.

What we may be glimpsing, as the Premier League suddenly struggles to make its customary impact at the highest level of European competition, and in three weeks' time may find itself without a representative in the last eight of the Champions League for the first time since 1996, are the consequences of a willingness to sell the family silver. There is no longer a genuine relationship between the very top of such clubs and the base of their traditional, local support. When things are going well, it doesn't seem to matter much. It is in bad times that the nature of the bond, which lacks intimacy and true empathy, can threaten stability.

Perhaps Villas-Boas will turn it around at Stamford Bridge on 14 March, but it is hard to be optimistic about his prospects. Had Ashley Cole not blocked Maggio's shot on the goal line in the 89th minute, there would have been no doubt about the outcome of the tie. As it is, there is just enough room for hope.

From where, though, are they going to get the goals needed to overcome a 3-1 deficit, particularly since few would bet against the chance of Edinson Cavani or Ezequiel Lavezzi contriving an away goal to match the one Mata gave Chelsea in Naples?

Drogba is no longer the intimidating force of old, Fernando Torres has exhausted his credit, Nicolas Anelka has left, Salomon Kalou appears to have been discarded, Lampard's 20-goals-a-season form is behind him, and Mata can hardly be expected to fill the void by himself.

Perhaps that beautifully composed aide-mémoire held part of the answer in its hint of a real commitment to Villas-Boas's famous "project", which involves resetting the compass of a team currently adrift amid conflicting tides. Daniel Sturridge will certainly think so.

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