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Thursday, Feb. 23, 2012

Chelsea, Real fail to impress in Champions League


LONDON — Chelsea didn't do much better than Arsenal on its trip to Italy in the Champions League, leaving English clubs in danger of missing the quarterfinals of the competition for the first time since 1996.

News photo
The real deal: CSKA's Keisuke Honda runs in front of Real Madrid's Cristiano Ronaldo on Tuesday in Moscow. KYODO

Showing the same kind of defensive frailties that condemned Arsenal to a 4-0 loss at AC Milan last week, Chelsea failed to protect an early lead and lost 3-1 at Napoli in the first leg of their round of 16 matchup.

In Tuesday's other match, CSKA Moscow scored a last-gasp equalizer to draw 1-1 at home against Real Madrid.

While Chelsea still has a realistic chance of turning things around in the return leg at Stamford Bridge, the loss heaped further pressure on manager Andre Villas-Boas, whose self-proclaimed support from owner Roman Abramovich could quickly evaporate if he fails to deliver in the competition the Russian billionaire is most eager to win.

It also means England could be without a team in Champions League come early March, as Manchester United and Manchester City were both eliminated in the group stage.

Chelsea's recent troubles grew worse even before the kickoff, when the club confirmed that captain John Terry will need knee surgery and will be sidelined for up to six weeks.

The visitors still looked set to produce a result when Juan Mata gave them an early lead, but Ezequiel Lavezzi exploited defensive mishaps to score twice and Edinson Cavani added another goal to put Napoli in control.

"It is not impossible to recover 3-1 because of the number of chances we get, and the environment we must create to turn this tie around and go through," Villas-Boas said. "We will analyze strongly what we did wrongly because a couple of things need to get better."

It was also a disappointing night for former Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho, whose Madrid side failed to take its dominant domestic form into Europe.

Cristiano Ronaldo put the nine-time European champions ahead with his 36th goal of the season, but CSKA midfielder Pontus Wernbloom scrambled the ball into the net with the last kick of the match in the third minute of stoppage time to equalize for the Russian club.

While Madrid still holds a 10-point lead over Barcelona to be on course to win the Spanish League title, Chelsea has now failed to win for a fifth straight game in all competitions.

Villas-Boas gambled by not starting the experienced trio of Ashley Cole, Frank Lampard and Michael Essien.

Luck, however, was initially in Chelsea's favor with Mata's opening goal somewhat of a gift.

After being picked out by Didier Drogba, Daniel Sturridge's resulting cross was kicked by Napoli captain Paolo Cannavaro back toward his own goal. The ball fell perfectly for Mata to slot into the net past goalkeeper Morgan De Sanctis in the 27th minute.

Napoli leveled 11 minutes later when Lavezzi collected the ball on the edge of the area and eluded Chelsea midfielder Raul Meireles before curling it into the bottom right corner past goalkeeper Petr Cech's outstretched hand.

Cavani, whose goals helped eliminate Premier League leader Manchester City in the group stage, scored his fifth goal in seven Champions League appearances this season right on halftime when he turned Gokhan Inler's cross into the net from close range.

"We had a chance to go 2-0 up and a couple of defensive mistakes that against Napoli, with their attacking strength, will get punished," Villas-Boas said.

After Chelsea defender David Luiz gave the ball away sloppily, Cavani turned provider, squaring it past an onrushing Cech for Lavezzi to slot into an empty net in the 65th.

Chelsea left Italy with a crucial away goal, as Madrid did from Russia.

Ronaldo's 28th-minute goal appeared to put the visitors on course for victory in a match played in subzero temperatures and on an artificial turf.

The Portugal forward pounced after the hosts had failed to clear Fabio Coentrao's cross from the left, striking the bouncing ball into the net with his less-favored left foot.

But Madrid paid for its failure to put the game away. CSKA goalkeeper Sergei Chepchugov saved Sergio Ramos' header in the 76th, before an unmarked Ronaldo inside the area rolled his shot just wide of the post with the goalkeeper beaten.

"We had our chances, especially in the second half, but we didn't convert them," Mourinho said.

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