Straight from the dark heart of Italy
It had all the makings of Napoli’s greatest evening in European football. They hoped the party would go on forever, but it all went flat against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge.
The final 4-1 scoreline was more than harsh on Walter Mazzarri’s men, but in truth they were well below their vibrant best – the form which had seen them take a 3-1 advantage into the tie.
There were early chances for Ezequiel Lavezzi and Edinson Cavani, which may have given the team impetus to push on and put the contest beyond doubt, but it all started to go wrong when Christian Maggio limped off with an ankle injury just after the half-hour mark.
In Napoli’s five-man midfield going forward, the Italy international provides extra support and telling crosses from the right – as he had already demonstrated in the opening moments with a curling ball to the back post, which Cavani slid into the side-netting.
In fact, the opening goal of the evening came in part from Maggio's inability to run freely and close down Ramires, who had time to come inside and whip in a pinpoint cross for Didier Drogba to head home.
With Maggio off and a reshuffle requiring Juan Zungia to move over to the right to accommodate left-footed substitute Andrea Dossena, Chelsea began to find more space down both wings – and in particular Branislav Ivanovic was given far too much time to bring the ball forward down Napoli's left flank.
Maggio: midfielder much missed by Mazzarri's men
Napoli were always prone to Chelsea's aerial threat – and with the wide positions exposed, the back three dropped ever deeper into their own area. Unsurprisingly, the second and third goals came from the centre-halves having to back-pedal and concede corners.
Undoubtedly the Azzurri's best period came they were two goals down and played much further up the pitch, using the flanks to their advantage. Again, it was a deep cross that saw Gokhan Inler react quickest to fire home a stunning half-volley from the edge of the area.
However, partly through choice and partly through force they again dropped too deep, leaving Cavani and Lavezzi too isolated to become the decisive factors everyone back in Naples had hoped.
Surrendering a two-goal lead and conceding four may not happen in the future, with Mazzarri’s men gathering valuable experience against a Chelsea side who are well used to such tense European nights – and at times it seemed as if Roberto di Matteo's home team were cast out of the Italian mould.
There was plenty of falling on the ground and precious seconds taken at set-pieces, especially in extra-time, and maybe for the neutral the thought of another packed house at the San Paolo with Cavani and Lavezzi rampaging forward would have made for an more entertaining quarter-final than watching the more pragmatic Blues.
As it stands, Serie A joins the Premier League in having just one representative in the last eight – that being AC Milan, who will be hoping not to draw Chelsea in light of their most recent performance in London.
SERIE AAAAARGH!, Wed 7 Mar: Milan sober up in time to avoid embarrassment at Arsenal
Inter exited the tournament on Tuesday after a half-spirited effort against a very average Marseilles side. Going out to the away goal finally brings the curtain down on the Nerazzuri's ageing stars, who had in truth made one too many encores.
The former Treble winners will finish the season without a trophy but more damning is the fact that while Napoli ended their European adventure with their heads held high, Inter could only bow theirs in shame.
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