Napoli leaves mark on Champions League

There’s a very particular, funereal mood that envelops a group of players that has just exited the Champions League. The perpetually uppish Gökhan Inler filed briskly down the side of the Stamford Bridge pitch on his way out, with a glum face on and not stopping to talk. A pained-looking Paolo Cannavaro lent his elbow on the shoulder of an accompanying member of backroom staff, unloading his woes.

Yet the manner of the players’ departure was pretty much the only way in which Napoli observed convention during a wild night in London. By the time the disappointed squad reached the team bus, parked at the top of the old ground’s East Stand, it might have started to absorb how much it actually won in the course of elimination. Four-score loitering Neapolitans formed a makeshift guard of honor around the vehicle’s door, whooping, applauding and snapping on their iPhones. For many of the tifosi, it’s been about the journey as much as it’s been about the destination.

There has been much consternation among British-based calcio lovers this season over lazy Serie A stereotypes, provoked by one now-infamous edition of Sky Sports’ Sunday Supplement program in which one of the panelists claimed “nobody” watches Italian domestic soccer anymore. This astonishing night was a victory for those loyalists, too, as a brashly delivered riposte to those detractors in their own front room.

Yet no generalizations can be made on the basis of this one occasion. It was befitting of Napoli, a club apart, resurrected by an uncommonly passionate fanbase (and, of course, the financial intervention of movie producer Aurelio De Laurentiis), following bankruptcy in the early part of the century – as were another cornerstone of calcio, Fiorentina. An extra-time defeat to one of Europe’s leading club sides of recent years is no dishonor for a club which occupied Italy’s third-tier as recently as 2006.

This was a moment to be savored, on and off the field. Officially, only 2,700 tickets were available for away fans, though some Italian media sources claimed that up to 10,000 fans had come to London for the game. This night was certainly several rungs above the average Champions League soirée at the Bridge, a stadium as used to the tournament as it is to seeing night follow day.

That familiarity has bred a certain ennui on broadly equivalent nights in the recent past. Coupled with a £15 ($23.50) hike in Champions League ticket prices by the club this season, many regulars have complained of a sagging atmosphere inside the stadium.

As soon as you crossed the Fulham Road to meet the fat raft of fluorescent yellow police jackets cocooning the traveling fans from the locals, it was clear that this would not be the case again. Napoli would not have the formidable San Paolo on its side for the return leg, but it felt like it had brought a substantial chunk of it along for the ride.

You could feel it every step of the way on an intense night. As’s Susy Campagnale noted, the travelling Neapolitans continued their now-traditional sing-along of the Champions League anthem as it boomed out from the speakers, embodying their implication in the whole event. Chelsea’s players, meanwhile, had the unusual sensation of being whistled when enjoying a prolonged period of possession, as if they were the away side. The Matthew Harding Stand responded, belligerently backing its side.

Local stewards struggled to keep order, fighting their perpetual vain battle to keep people in their seats in such an emotive environment, and faced with away sympathizers dotted among the home flock – something not especially common, or welcomed, in English soccer culture.

Generally, matters remained within the margins of acceptability on both sides of the touchline. The adrenaline in the stands was mirrored on the field, and referee Felix Brych allowed the game to flow, with fewer bookings issued than might have been in a different context. In truth, the German official had little option but to be carried along on the game’s irresistible flow, but his was a worthy and unobtrusive role.

Far from the remote, concrete mess that it was in the 1980s, today’s Stamford Bridge is almost the identikit of the globally-perceived typical Premier League stadium, with looming stands hemmed in right to the edge of the field. Yet it was Napoli that forced the breathless pace associated with the English expression of soccer. The Italian side forced a far more-experienced Chelsea side to flush every capillary and stretch every sinew to get over the line.

While Edinson Cavani, probably the club’s most iconic player since Diego Maradona, had a relatively quiet night, his team frothed with personality. Inler, the man who introduced himself on his arrival press conference last July wearing a lion mask, and Marik Hamsik provided the early energy to dominate Chelsea in its den. At the break, the away side had had twice as many goal attempts as its host. Yet as Napoli conceded, its fiber became even clearer. Not one of the goals conceded in the course of the 120 minutes changed the gumption with which it played.

The coach Walter Mazzarri, more formally dressed than continental audiences have seen in the past, typically leapt through the first half as if dancing barefoot on a bed of jalapeños, before inevitably casting his coat aside despite the chill of the London night. Dealt a blow by the first-half loss of “our best player” (as he later said) Christian Maggio through injury, he continued to cajole his men forward relentlessly with windmilling arms as we entered stoppage-time at the end of the 90.

Napoli didn’t stop. Chelsea’s own relentless effort, which saw even John Terry succumb in the second half and David Luiz limp through the latter stages (“I couldn’t really walk for the last 20 minutes,” he later told reporters), will be used as evidence of post-Villas-Boas rejoicing. It was a reflection of the challenge presented by Napoli, as well as Chelsea’s own laudable reserves of obstinacy and quality.

It is often said that great managers mold teams in their own image, with José Mourinho a frequently evoked example. In this case, it appears that Napoli’s supporters do likewise with their team; a frenetic bundle of haphazard, and occasionally infuriating, energy. After the game both captain Cannavaro and president De Laurentiis spoke of their longing for a repeat experience next season. The Champions League would be happy to have them back.