Chelsea primed for Italian job
Premier League honour will be at stake on Wednesday as Chelsea attempt to overturn a first-leg deficit against Napoli and prevent England's worst UEFA Champions League campaign for 16 years.
Not since the 1995/1996 edition of European football's most prestigious club tournament - when Blackburn Rovers were bombed out in the group phase - has an English team failed to reach the quarter-finals.
The demise of the Premier League's representatives this season contrasts sharply with the dominance of a few years ago, when between 2007 and 2009 English clubs won through to nine out of 12 available semi-final berths.
Yet with Manchester United and Manchester City falling at the first hurdle, and Arsenal eliminated by Milan last week, the Premier League's hopes of survival in Europe now rest with Chelsea.
A 3-1 defeat in the first leg last month marked the beginning of the end for sacked manager Andre Villas-Boas, when the Portuguese coach's risky decision to leave Frank Lampard and Ashley Cole on the bench backfired spectacularly.
Since Villas-Boas's abrupt dismissal however Chelsea have shown signs of a mini-revival, grinding out a 2-0 FA Cup victory at Birmingham last week followed by a 1-0 win over Stoke at the weekend.
Those two results marked the first time in nearly two months that Chelsea had kept clean sheets in consecutive matches, something they will almost certainly need to do if they are to squeeze past Napoli on Wednesday.
Crucially, Chelsea have been buoyed by the sooner-than-expected return of captain John Terry, whose absence was never felt more acutely than in the first leg, when Napoli's vaunted attackers Edinson Cavani and Ezequiel Lavezzi teased and tormented the Blues' defence throughout.
Chelsea's interim manager Roberto Di Matteo admitted Napoli's counter-attacking threat posed a serious problem for his team but insisted victory was achievable. "We will have to be balanced, obviously, because their threat obviously on counter-attacking is very good and they have some players that can hurt you," Di Matteo said.
"When they're going to come here on Wednesday at Stamford Bridge, they will play against a good team, a great team, and we will make their life difficult and try to turn the leg around."
Di Matteo has declined to rate Chelsea's chances of survival, however. "I'll leave that up to you to say how much percentage we have. We have to believe that we can turn this around and that we can win the game and that's how we're going to go into this game," he said.
It was left to Spanish playmaker Juan Mata to strike a more bullish tone, with the 23-year-old urging his team-mates to go for the jugular against a Napoli side whose defence is anything but impregnable, as last Friday's 6-3 win over Cagliari demonstrated.
"From the first minute, we have to try to create chances to score," Mata said. "We know that they have very, very good strikers. We have to be careful with them but we are going to press them from the first minute."
Mata believes Chelsea's home form in the Champions League this season is a good omen heading into Wednesday's return. "In football, nothing is impossible," he said. "At Stamford Bridge, this Champions League, we had good results in the group - 3-0, 2-0 and 5-0. All the supporters, for sure, will be cheering us. It's a final for us and I think we can do it."
Napoli defender Paolo Cannavaro meanwhile said his team-mates had been forewarned following AC Milan's first-half against Arsenal last week, when the Italians shipped three goals to the Gunners in a devastating early onslaught.
"The Arsenal match last week opened our eyes," Cannavaro said. "We are going to come under pressure but if we concentrate and stay calm we can do it. The first-half will be very important."