Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

Chelsea Summons Up Spirit of a Champion

Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

Chelsea Summons Up Spirit of a Champion

Article excerpt

Accused of forcing out the team's last coach, Chelsea's star players lead the team to a dramatic extra-time victory against Napoli.

Just when it seemed the English bulldog spirit had been eliminated from the Champions League this season, Chelsea bounced back.

Chelsea's presence among the final eight clubs going into the quarterfinal draw on Friday in Switzerland is down to physical power, mental fortitude, and something that appeared lost in this club -- an unshakable unity within the team.

To come from 3-1 behind after the first leg in Naples, to go through a locker room breakup that forced out the coach, and then to claw back and erase the deficit, overcoming a decent Napoli in extra time, made Wednesday a very special night in west London.

It is not often these days that fans stay up so late into the night, not knowing which of two teams will best the other over two matches. The final score, 4-1 to Chelsea, and 5-4 on aggregate, was like a throwback to the time when the old European Cup was always a two-leg knockout affair.

On English television, Gianfranco Zola, a once-irrepressible player of both these teams, summed up: "In Italy," he said, "we talk about the character of the player, the man who can show up when it is really needed. Chelsea had those men tonight."

One such player, Frank Lampard, is still showing up in his 11th season in Chelsea blue. Lampard scored his 183rd goal and made his 116th assist in a 545-game Chelsea career thus far. He plays in the midfield, where the running is hardest, and, after Zola, he came closest to defining Chelsea's spirit.

"Our desire shone through," Lampard said. "It was not always beautiful football, but we played the way we had to against a very good team, and our energy and will to win in the second half and extra time deserved to get us over the line."

Lampard had been omitted from the first leg in Naples. It had seemed for some while that he was not Andre Villas-Boas's cup of tea. And whether the English players in particular -- the captain John Terry, vice captain Lampard, and left back Ashley Cole -- were the cause or the victims of it all, Villas-Boas was fired by the club's owner, Roman Abramovich, between the two Napoli matches.

Villas-Boas, wherever he was, saw a very different, collected Chelsea approach Tuesday. Abramovich, wrapped up against the cold night air, sat motionless, seemingly joyless, throughout his team's resurrection.

The rest of the audience, Neapolitans as well as Chelsea fans, gave almost as much as the players on the field.

For long spells, Napoli defied the convention of modern European soccer that suggests that a visiting team defends oppressively to protect a lead.

With Edinson Cavani, Ezequiel Lavezzi and Marek Hamsik in your attack, why would you rely on defense? They have been three of the Champions League's finest strikers this season, and the Napoli defense is less than secure at the best of times, so the coach, Walter Mazzarri, was almost certainly right to give the team its head and let it seek to score more goals. …

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