Di Matteo is cast as the accidental hero
00:03 GMT, 15 March 2012
A funny thing, the bounce. West Bromwich Albion sacked their manager last season and got it, so did Chelsea this season. And it is the same manager. Roberto Di Matteo.
Albion were better for his disappearance, Chelsea quite dramatically improved for his emergence following the dismissal of Andre Villas-Boas.
Now they are in the Champions League quarter-final, against the odds.
Main man: Roberto Di Matteo (centre) celebrates after Chelsea won through
Branislav Ivanovic put them there, in extra time, scoring the fourth of the night against a Napoli team that deserves much credit for helping create this quite brilliant spectacle. It was without doubt Chelsea’s finest performance of the season, and certainly their gutsiest.
Yet it was Di Matteo, a hero here as a player, now the season’s saviour as manager, who emerged with greatest credit from an incredible night.
He has not changed much, not really, but has restored some of the natural order, needlessly under siege from his predecessor. He picks Frank Lampard for the biggest games, Didier Drogba, too, and he is fortunate to have John Terry back and fit again.
All three scored, but that was not the point. When he sensed Terry was flagging in extra time, he took him off. It was a brave call, but the right one. The end justified the means. He is no patsy, Di Matteo, nobody’s friend as he says.
So this was a huge performance for the caretaker and for Chelsea, who may yet find the momentum to join Arsenal in an attack on Tottenham Hotspur’s right to a Champions League place next season.
Old guard: Frank Lampard (right) and John Terry both scored for Chelsea
If they cannot get a fillip from a display like this, all is lost. Napoli’s defensive weakness brought out the best in the players, as did their predicament, needing at least two goals to erase the first-leg defeat in Naples, and finally four on the night.
Responding in a way they rarely did under Villas-Boas, the games with Manchester City and Valencia aside, they played with a passion that has been missing for much of this season. They need to beat Leicester City at home on Saturday to reach an FA Cup semi-final.
Chelsea’s old guard may not be the force of old, but they were not a problem here, either. Drogba scored, Terry scored, Lampard hammered away at the coal face — and then scored, as he so often does: 13 goals and counting again this season. The trophy is probably beyond them — then again, many said that of this tie — and it may be the last time the senior service pass this way, if a top-four finish is not their destiny, but to use an old dressing-room exhortation, they left nothing out there.
The end of an era We shall see. Not when the veterans can hit this peak. It was a flashback to see this group, united and fighting to its last gasp. Chelsea and Napoli gave it everything, the only way they could. And on a night when some quarters of English football took a header off the deep end, it truly was an inspiring sight.
Life in the old Drog yet: Didier Drogba scored Chelsea's opening goal
Praise Napoli, too. In many ways they made the game by forgetting that caution might be a sensible ploy and throwing it, laughingly, to the wind. Their fans were as passionate as they are in home surrounds, their approach as spirited. Not once, whether leading 3-1 on aggregate or chasing the game at 2-0 down on the night, did they show fear. But neither did Chelsea.
As for defence, it’s very over-rated. Not as a skill, because there are not enough great defenders in the world right now for the worth of a towering they-shall-not-pass centre half or a full back who can stop as many goals as he creates to be undervalued. No, it is defence as a spectacle that is too readily appreciated, its absence in the Premier League this season too regularly lamented and missed.
Cue great goal, cue grimacing Alan Hansen, Lee Dixon, even Gary Neville. They talk the cold logic of the professional, but where would we be if nights like this did not exist Defences on top Who the hell wants to see defences on top
Di Matteo and his Neapolitan counterpart Walter Mazzarri, presumably. Coaches hate games that are open and random. You have a go, then we’ll have a go. You go fast, we’ll go faster. It isn’t as simple as that, obviously. There are tactics and plans and schemes and training-ground routines that, unbeknownst to the layman, fall perfectly into place.
In with a shout: Gokhan Inler put Napoli ahead before Chelsea hit back
It’s just that, to the untrained eye, it does not look like that. It looks like two teams of super athletes going at each other hammer and tongs. And that is how football should be.
Remember the days when a European tie was three hours of cat and mouse, over two torturous legs Tippy-tappy around the back, gentle probe here, cautious advance there. These teams didn’t. They appeared to have abandoned the manual in favour of something a little more, shall we say, local.
This had the breakneck tempo and abandonment of Premier League football. This was the sort of game we do not believe exists in Italy, or is capable of being played by an Italian team.
Napoli are, in that regard, quite exceptional. They encapsulate the best of the Italian game of old, highly skilled, very technical, like lighting on the counter-attack, with a courageousness that we foolishly imagine is purely ours.
A 4-1 defeat suggests mismatch, but this was anything but. Napoli are like a Premier League team, only faster. They break fast, they think fast, they make the game thrilling, and they went down fighting.
Beaten: Napoli impressed over the two legs but were defeated at the last
After 18 minutes here, Napoli — nursing a 3-1 first-leg lead, remember — had created seven goalscoring chances to Chelsea’s two, of which three had been on target to Chelsea’s one.
Time was the Italian team — any Italian team — in their position would have been happy to sit back and invite the onslaught. Napoli coach Mazzarri clearly sees attack as the best form of defence, and more power to him for that.
He was right, too, whatever the outcome. Napoli are quite clearly a stronger force going forward than they are protecting their goal. Their best hope here was to score and leave Chelsea needing three, minimum.
What they could not imagine, from the events of the first leg, was that Chelsea would be a match for that task. This is a different Chelsea, though, and Napoli were not to know.
Di Matteo’s little ripples may yet cause big waves to break.