Two sides with different viewpoints are set to oppose each other in the Champions League this week. Italian upstarts, FC Napoli will confront, British heavyweights, Chelsea in the first knockout stage on Tuesday.
The Blues are currently sitting fourth in the English Premier League and have been a major disappointment so far. Lacklustre performances combined with controversy on and off the pitch have produced tension within the club.
Captain John Terry has been front and centre of the controversy. Terry has been accused of making racial slurs to Anton Ferdinand of Queen’s Park Rangers back in October. Terry has emphatically denied the accusations but he nor the club has escaped the stigma of these transgressions. Chelsea have endeavoured to maintain quality form but have only shown glimpses of prized football.
There have been rumours suggesting manager Andre Vilas-Boas wants to leave Chelsea at the end of the season but AVB insists he will stay in West London for the long haul.
Owner Roman Abramovich has invested millions of dollars to the club and has stated his number one goal is to win the Champions League. Chelsea were successful in group competition, finishing top of the table in Group E, winning all of their matches at home.
The Blues should welcome back striker Didier Drogba to the starting eleven this week. The Ivory Coast International was competing in the African Cup Of Nations and hasn’t been with the club for the last month. Drogba, when on form is a deadly striker, who led the Blues with 3 goals in Group competition. Chelsea do have a quandary on their hands though as Juan Mata and Fernando Torres both want pitch time in this crucial tie. Mata should get the call though as he has been the more efficient striker with 8 goals in all competitions compared to just 4 goals for Torres. However El Nino does have 2 goals in the Champions League and according to the brain trust of Chelsea, Torres has shown better form in Europe than domestically.
The midfield will be governed by Frank Lampard. The longtime English International is showing no signs of slowing down with his 11 goals in all competitions leading the Blues. The uncertainty lies with Brazilian, Ramires who is suffering from a knee injury. Ramires did return to the starting eleven over the weekend but his health is still a concern. Winger Daniel Sturridge has been a potent attacker for the Blues and his pace will provide difficulties for Napoli.
Terry’s impropriety isn’t the only issue for the captain. A knee knock sidelined Terry this weekend and his status for this week is unknown. With Ashley Cole battling a calf issue as well, the back four could be vulnerable to Napoli’s attack.
Petr Cech is the last line of defence and while he remains one of the top keepers in football, he has showed signs of slowing down. Still Cech is difficult to penetrate and Napoli will have to be creative inside the 18 yard box.
The Italian side don’t have the same pressures Chelsea do and that could be a huge advantage for the Partenopei. Under the guidance of Walter Mazzarri, Napoli finished second in Group A including a captivating 2-1 result over Manchester City. However Mazzarri will miss both legs of this tie, after incurring a 2 match ban for improper conduct in Napoli’s most recent Champions League match against Villarreal.
If Napoli are to advance to the quarterfinals, they must find space for striker Edinson Cavani. The Uruguayan International is lethal when he is provided service, scoring 15 goals in all competitions, 4 of those coming in Europe. Cavani is tenacious around the goal, and can finish with his foot or his head. Joining Cavani will be Ezequiel Lavezzi. The Argentian isn’t the finisher Cavani is but is a superb playmaker who can be very creative inside the penalty area.
The midfield is a sturdy group with Czech International Marek Hamsik providing service and finish from the attacking midfield spot. A player to watch is Christian Maggio, while dependable, would face a one match ban if he incurs a caution. Maggio must display self-control while playing with passion.
The back four is captained by Paolo Cannavaro who just might be the best defender in all of Italy. Salvatore Aronica is also playing with a caution, he too must show restraint in this pivotal tie.
Keeper Morgan De Sanctis picked up a minor knee knock in training last week but should be able to defend his goal for Napoli.
Prediction: Chelsea have everything to lose in this tie. All the pressure will be on Vilas-Boas and his squad to not just advance but win the Champions League. Chelsea have not shown me the form that they can do that. Napoli survived a very difficult group and are poised for a breakthrough. Cavani is a superstar waiting to happen and with the first leg in Naples, a quick start will be encouraging for Napoli. In a surprise I’m picking Napoli to advance to the quarterfinals.
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