It was the Chelsea of a bygone era, playing as if the last ten months have never happened. It was an extraordinary night of European football which ended with Roman Abramovich in the dressing room congratulating the same players whose manager he sacked just 11 days earlier.
It was a comeback over 120 minutes and through four goals that required the plain old cussedness for which this Chelsea side was once famous. They overturned a 3-1 first leg deficit to become the only English team in the quarter-finals draw tomorrow and they did so having won one of the most enthralling Champions League games played in the competition this season.
It does not change the fact that Didier Drogba, Frank Lampard and John Terry will have to be replaced at some point, and some sooner than others. Chelsea are still a very long way from winning this competition, the trophy Abramovich wants most. But this was the kind of night that the club required to drag themselves out of the shadow of the Andre Villas-Boas episode.
Drogba left the pitch waving a Chelsea flag, Lampard pointed up to his family on the first tier of the stand and punched the air. Earlier Terry, substituted during extra-time, had effectively been directing operations alongside the caretaker manager Roberto Di Matteo on the touchline. It was as if the Villas-Boas purge of the old guard had simply never happened.
Branislav Ivanovic might have scored the dramatic extra-time winner but it was the identity of the first three goalscorers – Drogba, Terry and Lampard, from the penalty spot – that gave the evening its flavour. This was one in the eye for those who say the Jose Mourinho team are over the hill and, whatever your view on that, one could hardly have denied that the drama of the evening was irresistible.
By the end of the game Di Matteo’s team were effectively down to ten men with David Luiz hobbling. At times, especially in the first half, they had been second best. But the Italians had been hit by the sheer relentless nature of Chelsea who had terrified their opponents in the air from set-pieces.
Yes, the old guard rolled back the years and no-one more than Terry who was outstanding in defence. Lampard, almost overrun in the first half, came back into the game and there was no-one Chelsea would have trusted more with the penalty that took the tie into extra-time. But there were also major contributions from Ivanovic, Luiz and Ramires.
If he was watching on television, and he surely was, Villas-Boas might have wondered how a team that lost so limply in Naples for him could fight so ferociously for his assistant. Certainly, this game demonstrated that the young coach did push the pace of change too quickly and that his omission of Lampard and Ashley Cole in the first leg had left his side with too little experience.
But it was also one of those occasions when the mood sweeps the team along. That perfect storm of factors: the end of a managerial era unpopular among certain players, the adversity of the first leg scoreline and that for the first time in a long time, Chelsea’s players went into a Champions League knock-out game with nothing to lose. They looked liberated for a change.
Chelsea are now only the fourth team in the history of the competition to come back from a deficit of two goals or more in the first leg. How much did Di Matteo have to do with it? He certainly picked the right team but no-one expected Abramovich to give him the job permanently. This was another one of those nights when the will of the players was exerted again.
What next for Chelsea? There is one name in particular that stands out in the draw tomorrow, that of Apoel from Cyprus, who eliminated Lyons on penalties last week. Otherwise the big boys are all there: Barcelona, Real Madrid, Milan, Bayern Munich, Benfica and Marseilles. The kudos of being the last English survivor will sustain them for some time.
From the first minute last night, Chelsea came out swinging and when Napoli met them nose-to-nose this game showed all the signs of being a rattling good contest. In the first minute Lampard cleaned out Edinson Cavani with a tackle. Drogba chested the ball down to Daniel Sturridge and his shot was saved by Morgan De Sanctis.
The message from Chelsea was clear: we are not prepared to go quietly. That was not to say they got it all their own way, far from it. For a period after Chelsea’s spikey start they found themselves pinned back by the mastery of Napoli in the midfield when Lampard and Michael Essien struggled. Petr Cech came to the rescue as Ezequiel Lavezzi and Marek Hamsik both had chances.
Later, Napoli’s manager Walter Mazzarri would bemoan what he considered Chelsea’s more cynical approach and claim that his team were not protected by the German referee. In those early stages, with Napoli playing through them, Chelsea took a more direct option.
All night, Napoli struggled to deal with the power of the home side when the ball was crossed into the box. For Chelsea’s first goal it was Ramires, an unlikely provider of assists, who crossed from the left for Drogba to twist and head the ball in.
Immediately after half-time, Terry headed Lampard’s corner away from De Sanctis and into the far corner. Terry had been outstanding but his one error was failing to get his clearing header on 55 minutes sufficiently clear. Gokhan Inler struck a brilliant half-volley that turned the tie back in Napoli’s favour.
That might have been it for Chelsea in other circumstances. But, with Fernando Torres on the pitch as a substitute, they came back once more.. They won a series of corners and on 73 minutes a header from Ivanovic header clearly connected with the hand of substitute Andrea Dossena. Referee Felix Brych pointed to the spot and Lampard did the rest.
So to extra-time. Torres got a sight of goal when the ball bounced over De Sanctis but the striker never looked like getting his shot on target. Ivanovic’s winner was crossed from Drogba on the right and he finished, as Lampard later said, “like a striker”. In the past a place in the quarter-finals would have been considered the very minimum from Chelsea but last night it felt like a great deal more than that.
Substitutes: Chelsea Torres (Sturridge, 63), Malouda (Mata, 95), Bosingwa (Terry, 98). Napoli Dossena (Maggio, 36), Pandev (Hamsik, 106), Vargas (Aronica, 110).
Booked: Chelsea Lampard, Cole. Napoli Cannavaro, Lavezzi, Inler, Campagnaro.
Man of the match Drogba.
Match rating 9/10.
Possession: Chelsea 59% Napoli 41%.
Attempts on target: Chelsea 13 Napoli 9.
Referee F Brych (Ger). Attendance 37,784.