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Wednesday, February 22

The Extra Time (CL, 21/2)

A look at Napoli 3 - 1 Chelsea and CSKA Moscow 1 - 1 Real Madrid, Tuesday's Champions League fixtures.

Napoli 3 - 1 Chelsea

Roman Abramovich's ask of André Villas-Boas is a bit like telling a carpenter to tear down one's home and simultaneously rebuild it, all the while expecting to still live there throughout the entire process.

Which is to say, it's unreasonable.

Chelsea, at its core, is an aging team.  An aging team of dogs too senior to learn new tricks.  An aging team of players so entrenched in their ways that they will almost mutiny as a response to the new wants.  Abramovich, wanting not just a Top-4 Premier League finish and a transformation of play but also Champions League success, is asking Villas-Boas to build Rome in a day.  And even with Juan Mata's burgeoning stardom, Oriol Romeu's promise and his own tactical guile, Villas-Boas just doesn't have the adequate tools for the job to appease the usually-reasonable Abramovich.

So, when feeling the pressure from a Russian billionaire and a frenzied fanbase, it's not a surprise, then, that Villas-Boas fielded a starting eleven as conflicted as Abramovich's demands in the opening leg of Chelsea's Champions League Round of 16 tie with Napoli.

The Starting XIs (with Cole on for the injured Bosingwa)

Against a strong Napoli side which favours counter-attacking out of their 3-4-2-1 shape over all other approaches, it should have been mandatory for Villas-Boas to play a reliable holding player or, at the very least, not the matador defense and cavalier approach to possession Raul Meireles offers.  Moreover, employing Mata behind Didier Drogba doesn't make the best use of either's talent: Mata's creativity is much better utilized behind a centre-forward looking to get on the end of through-balls instead of a classic hold-up-play striker.  However, given the form of Drogba's alternate, Fernando Torres, the clashing of styles was, perhaps, a necessary evil.

But what wasn't necessary was how Villas-Boas instructed his Chelsea side to defend:

Chelsea in Defense

When out of possession, Villas-Boas had Meireles, Branislav Ivanovic and David Luiz leave the pitch entirely.  Had Meireles been in defense, Ezequiel Lavezzi would not have brought the game to level terms after Mata's opener.  Had Ivanovic been in defense, Edinson Cavani wouldn't have put in Napoli's second.  And had Luiz been in defense, Lavezzi wouldn't have given the Azzurri a commanding 3-1 lead heading into the return leg at Stamford Bridge.  Surely this playing of only seven men in defense warrants Villas-Boas' exit.

CSKA Moscow 1 - 1 Real Madrid

All told, CSKA Moscow-debutant Pontus Wernbloom's strike at the very death of the match to even the scoreline wasn't entirely undeserved after a lively second half: Moscow's inability to string together even two passes in the final third was largely due to their own incompetence rather than Real Madrid disrupting their passing game.  Had their passes not been telegraphed or had their receiving of the ball been even adequate, Pepe -- the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being ever -- would've been unable to bulldoze his way to the ball, and space existed for exploiting behind advanced full-backs.

Moments were certainly encouraging for Moscow's chances ahead of the return leg, but should their passing woes make the trip to the Santiago Bernabéu, even a fully-fit Keisuke Honda will be powerless to stop the freight train that is Real Madrid's home form this season.

In continuing with his hypermodern approach from the most recent Clásico, José Mourinho fielded a shape and tactics which led to these average positions for his players:

RED: Forwards || GOLD: Midfielders || WHITE: Defenders

While Madrid ultimately resembled a 4-2-4 when attacking, they achieved it a different way than they did against Barcelona: where the self-anointed Special One had played two out-and-out strikers and two wingers against Barça without an attacking centre-midfielder, Mourinho started Mesut Özil from the centre against Moscow, allowing him the freedom to push ahead to join Gonzalo Higuaín -- who came on for the injured Karim Benzema in the sixteenth minute -- or to fill the space outside left by an advancing Cristiano Ronaldo or Jose Callejón.  And, instead of the winger opposite play always running towards the back post, Ronaldo or Callejón would also take up a support position behind Higuaín but ahead of Khedira or Alonso.

Madrid Down the Right (flip for Left)

The rest of Mourinho's shape and tactics remained relatively unchanged: in midfield, Sami Khedira and Xabi Alonso took it in turns playing an advanced pivot role, and full-backs Fabio Coentrão and Álvaro Arbeloa surged forward down the touchlines to provide width.  Mourinho certainly found a tactic in his hypermodern approach that can wound Barcelona, and his continued employing of it and variants thereof now suggests he may even begin another potential Champions League Clásico with it, as opposed to waiting until the hour mark.

Liked this?  Then for blog updates and 140-character-limit ramblings.  Also, check back for a look at the next set of Champions League fixtures.

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