Where once it was men of steel, now we get men of straw
It was one of those teams. You know the sort. Death or glory. Hit or bust. And Chelsea bust. Not in the way Arsenal did in Milan last week. There is still hope.
But if this is the team that is going to protect Andre Villas-Boas from the raging storm, he would be better off investing in an umbrella. If this is the new era, he is better off going back to the future.
Chelsea’s manager played that most dangerous game in Naples: look how clever I am. Not as clever as he thinks, as it turned out.
Villas-Boas is allowed some small mitigation as Chelsea’s greatest problem was beyond his control. John Terry pulled out of the game following his brief training session in the Stadio San Paolo on Monday night and the captain will miss the next two months following knee surgery.
This, rather than any selection by Chelsea’s latest Tinkerman, left the defence holed beneath its waterline.
Back to reality: Frank Lampard was left on the bench and failed to inspire ragged Chelsea in Naples
Any weakness, however, Villas-Boas compounded. He left Ashley Cole, Frank Lampard and Michael Essien out of his starting line-up and played straw men where figures of resilience and determination once stood.
At the back, Chelsea were soft, soft, soft. Napoli ran far too easily through the middle where Raul Meireles proved a poor sentinel. Behind him, David Luiz and Gary Cahill continue to form the least convincing partnership since David Cameron ended up with a half share in a general election victory.
In place of vindication, Villas-Boas has earned instead a stay of execution, at best. If he lives to fight another day it will be more out of necessity and the last dwindling hope of a comeback at Stamford Bridge when these teams meet again on March 14.
Napoli looked highly vulnerable defensively and Chelsea only need to win 2-0 to progress.
The chance of Chelsea keeping a clean sheet against Napoli’s brilliant front three, however, is even more remote.
The strain is showing: Chelsea assistant
manager Roberto Di Matteo and striker
Didier Drogba display their frustration after the final whistle
Edinson Cavani, Ezequiel Lavezzi and Marek Hamsik are the equal of any combination on the continent that does not have access to Lionel Messi and more than a match for Chelsea without Terry.
Napoli were the better side away to Manchester City earlier in the season and, if they repeat that level of performance, will surely score; at which point Chelsea need three goals just to prolong the tie to extra time.
In all likelihood, their next game in the Champions League will be their last of the season and — judging by the way the domestic campaign is going — probably their last for around 18 months, at least.
This makes Villas-Boas little more than a dead man walking, staggering on with a group of players we have come to regard as his gang. Rather an unconvincing bunch they are, but there you go. It was not as if he bought too many of them anyway.
Dead man walking: Andre Villas-Boas is staring down the barrel as Chelsea's Champions League hopes hang by a thread
That is the problem for all Chelsea managers in recent times. Villas-Boas’ team is a collection of the greatest hits, and misses, of several Chelsea coaches past.
The odd donation from Jose Mourinho, a smattering of Felipe Scolari, a bit of Carlo Ancelotti (Avram Grant fulfilling the role of the man who wasn’t there, as usual). All rubber-stamped, at the very least, by Roman Abramovich.
We never get to see the manager’s team at Chelsea because the shadow of the owner’s whims always places him in gloom.
This was as near as Villas-Boas will get to picking his team and it went down with all hands, a second-half goal from Lavezzi giving the scoreline an emphatic air that did not flatter Napoli’s forward line.
They were in a different class to Chelsea, shorn of Terry. His absence for the foreseeable future is a crushing blow.
A menace: Edinson Cavani caused Chelsea's hapless defence countless problems
The final Napoli goal saw calamitous defending from Luiz that may decide the tie and, in doing so, sums up the weakness of the AVB revolution. Too many of his favourite sons are not good enough, too many are imposters.
Chelsea took the lead and Napoli were rocking at the back, but the visitors crumbled beneath the slighest pressure, as it was predicted they would.
The players on which Villas-Boas has staked his future and reputation wilt too easily.
‘Career suicide,’ Jamie Redknapp called the selection, from a bleak pitchside location, an icy wind and swirling rain replacing the Neapolitan sunshine of earlier in the day.
The Chelsea players had strolled in it, as the news broke of Terry’s collapse and the absence of some of the most experienced players on the night added to the air of vulnerability.
Naples is no place to gamble, and this was a gamble.
Outnumbered: Branislav Ivanovic battles in vain against Juan Zuniga, Hugo Campagnaro and Christian Maggio
No Cole was the biggest shock. No Essien the biggest mistake. No Fernando Torres, no surprise. It is hard to imagine what he would have added to this, bar a reminder of the headache that awaits Villas-Boas’ successor.
In the manager’s defence, ultimately he had to go with his team and, faced with the biggest game of his season, that is what he did.
If he is to be sacked — and he will need to buck a trend at Chelsea if he is not — he might as well pick his men, not those others would choose for him.
At least this way, he falls by his mistakes. The worry, not just for the return leg, but for the FA Cup replay at Birmingham City and the remainder of the League season is that it is Chelsea’s core that is sagging.
When Lavezzi wiped out Juan Mata’s earlier goal, the move began with Cavani picking up the ball on the left and cutting inside, Lavezzi then lost Meireles before winding a shot past Cech.
Level pegging: Ezequiel Lavezzi avoids Gary Cahill's attentions to make it 1-1
From bad to worse it went, Branislav Ivanovic sleepy as a ball played by Gokhan Inler dropped for Cavani — too quickly into the heart of Chelsea’s back four and too sharp for those around him.
Where has Chelsea’s swagger gone, where the certainty Abramovich has left too many managers without power and now it shows. A firm hand was needed but Villas-Boas lacked the gravitas because everybody knows who really calls the shots at Chelsea. Not the players, as many think; not the manager, either.
Napoli are no great shakes at the back and there will be hope of a revival if Chelsea can score first but for Villas-Boas each game looks increasingly like Custer’s last stand — the beleaguered general peering out, the odds ever more overwhelming, arrows in his hat, waiting for the end.