Chelsea's continued struggles have been all over the headlines, and after suffering a 3-1 loss in the first leg of their UEFA Champions League Round of 16 tie, they will continue to be. The real story on Tuesday, though, was the fantastic play of Napoli.
To be specific, it was the fantastic play of Edinson Cavani and Ezequiel Lavezzi that sent an already raucous Stadio San Paolo into delirium. They were part of all three Napoli goals in a thorough 3-1 win that has the Partenopei eyeing a spot in the quarterfinals.
It took all of 10 minutes for Napoli to beat the Blues' defense. Cavani ran straight in behind the backline with Gary Cahill the one caught out for the second time in the young match. The Uruguayan gathered the ball and had a fantastic opportunity to put the home side in front early, but Petr Cech did well to get off of his line and make a fine save to keep the match scoreless.
Chelsea entered the match with their fair share of injuries at the back, with John Terry out and set to undergo surgery and Ashley Cole on the bench battling an injury of his own. Things got worse in the 11th minute when Jose Bosingwa did his hamstring in stretching to reach a ball and immediately signaled to the bench that he had to come off. That forced manager Andre Villas-Boas to turn to the injured Cole and the Blues' shaky defense got that much worse.
Napoli continued to pressure in the early going, but all it took was one mistake and they found themselves behind. Daniel Sturridge played in a hopeful ball that should not have troubled the defense too much, but Paolo Cannavaro shanked his clearance and the ball fell right to Juan Mata in front of the goal. The Spaniard was only too happy to take advantage, poking the ball past Morgan De Sanctis to give the Blues a 1-0 lead and, more importantly, a vital away goal.
Deserved or not, Chelsea were ahead and their goal certainly shocked Napoli. They were on the back foot and the Blues surged forward. Five minutes after going in front, Chelsea almost doubled their lead. David Luiz got free for a straight-away header at goal from six yards out, but he somehow put the ball over the bar and the visitors' lead remained at just one goal.
Chelsea would come to rue that miss in the 38th minute when Napoli equalized. Raul Meireles inexcusably failed to track Lavezzi and when Cahill did not step forward to close him down, the Napoli man was in plenty of space atop the box. Never afraid to have a go when presented the opportunity, Lavezzi struck the ball well and beat Cech with a good, low shot for an equalizer that caused Stadio San Paolo to erupt.
If the stadium was deafening after Lavezzi's goal, then the noise level was downright dangerous just before halftime. Branislav Ivanovic apparently thought the halftime whistle had gone because he fell asleep and allowed Cavani to get to the back post without a marker. There, Gökhan Inler's pass found Cavani and the striker knocked the ball over the line to put Napoli in front less than 20 minutes after falling behind.
With their goal just before halftime and a new lead fueling them, Napoli burst out of the gate in the second half and almost added another goal within 10 minutes. Cavani did well to hold the ball and draw the defense before sliding the ball across for Lavezzi, but the Argentinean's shot skipped wide of the post.
Cavani gave Lavezzi another chance, though, and this time he would not miss. In the 65th minute, Hugo Campagnaro played a fantastic ball over the top to a streaking Cavani. Luiz came across and beat Cavani to the ball, but his weak clearance just bounced off Cavani's chest and into the striker's path. Cech had come rushing out and when Cavani gathered the ball again, he was in no man's land. Cavani dribbled and dribbled, pulling Cech all the way out to the top of the box before playing the ball across to Lavezzi. With the entire goal to shoot at, Lavezzi wasn't going to drag this shot wide and he didn't, putting it in the back of the net for a 3-1 Napoli advantage.
Ahead by two goals, Napoli should have gone on cruise control, but that isn't their way. They continued to attack, almost to their own peril as twice Chelsea got the ball in front of goal and turned to scrum in front to find a goal, but Napoli was able to clear both time. Nicolò Frustalupi didn't help Napoli's case, either. Serving as manager for the night with Walter Mazzarri suspensed, Frustalupi oddly subbed on Blerim Dzemaili for Lavezzi and Goran Pandev for Marek Hamsik, making things all the more difficult for the home side.
With their continued attack, Napoli almost added to the lead once more in the 81st minute. A ball came across from the left and found Christian Maggio with Cech well out of the play. Maggio seemingly had an easy finish to extend Napoli's lead by another goal, but the ailing Cole managed to make a spectacular clearance off of the goal line and the Blues remained just a goal down.
In the end, Chelsea threw men forward in hopes of getting one more away goal, but it wasn't to be. A cross from Cole was just barely behind Didier Drogba, De Sanctis got down to deny a Frank Lampard attempt, and Napoli made several good clearances to stay two goals up heading to the second leg in London.
For more on the Blues, head over to Chelsea FC blog We Ain't Got No History.