Chelsea aims to keep England's flag flying
By STEVE DOUGLAS
LONDON (AP) If Chelsea fails to overturn a two-goal deficit against buoyant Napoli on Wednesday, England will be without a representative in the Champions League quarterfinals for the first time since 1996.
Chelsea was left to fly the flag for the English Premier League after Arsenal was eliminated by AC Milan last week, continuing England's poor run in the competition this season after the two Manchester clubs were knocked out at the group stage.
Yet the chances of Chelsea going further than its London rival look remote considering Napoli - enjoying a stunning first season in the Champions League - is 3-1 up from the first leg and has won its last five Italian league games, the most recent a 6-3 hammering of Cagliari on Friday.
"We're focused and ready because we want to continue living this Champions League dream," Napoli captain Paolo Cannavaro.
Napoli, the only one of this season's five debutants still standing, twice took part in the old European Cup during Diego Maradona's days at the club but never progressed beyond the second round.
Spearheaded by a three-pronged strike force of Edinson Cavani, Ezequiel Lavezzi and Marek Hamsik, which ripped Chelsea's creaking defense apart in the last leg, the team could go deep this year, however.
"Maradona's days remain the best in Napoli's history, but we feel we are nearly on a par with that era and that makes us proud," said Napoli coach Walter Mazzarri, who will be serving the second of a two-match touchline ban.
With the hosts needing to pour forward to get back in the match, Napoli will look to pick them off on the counterattack.
"We will have to be balanced, obviously, because their threat on counterattacking is very good and they have some players that can hurt you," interim Chelsea manager Roberto Di Matteo said. "When they come here on Wednesday at Stamford Bridge, they will play against a good team, a great team, and we will make their life difficult ... we have to believe that we can turn this around."
Ravaged by internal politik that contributed to the firing of Andre Villas-Boas at the start of the month, Chelsea has lost the swagger and class that helped the team reach the Champions League quarterfinals in six of the last eight seasons.
Yet Di Matteo has managed to restore some belief since taking over from Villas-Boas, earning wins in the FA Cup and Premier League in the space of four days without conceding a goal, and the team has danger men in Spain winger Juan Mata and Ivory Coast striker Didier Drogba.
"We can do it because we have the players, the attitude and the character," said Drogba, who scored his 100th league goal for Chelsea in the 1-0 win over Stoke on Saturday.
"This is the kind of match where you need the crowd to be strong, to be good even if we make mistakes. This is a difficult moment for Chelsea so we need the fans to be behind us."
Mata and England forward Daniel Sturridge started on the bench against Stoke so can expect a recall, while Drogba should again start ahead of out-of-form Fernando Torres up front.
Napoli rested Cavani, its top striker, for much of the match against Cagliari so the Uruguay international will be fresh when he teams up again with Argentina forward Lavezzi, who has six goals in the team's last four matches.
"We've still got a lot of work to do," Mazzarri said. "We're going to have to play to the limit for the entire 90 minutes. This squad has a defect in that it's not able to maintain its level for all 90 minutes."
Updated March 13, 2012