This was a night where the Portuguese threw caution to the wind and said arrivederci to a number of the senior players who, if rumours are to be believed, have been dripping poison about him in the ear of anyone who would listen.
Frank Lampard and Ashley Cole were dropped for this crucial Champions League last 16, first leg tie, while John Terry has been ruled out for up to two months with a knee injury. The stand-ins were supposed to reward the boldness of their manager with a display that saved the 34-year-old from Roman Abramovich’s axe. They did their best, but this tie is surely beyond them.
Villas-Boas afterwards rued a missed chance and poor defending.
Daniel Sturridge wasted a glorious opportunity to play in Mata for a second Chelsea goal, before Lavezzi was given space for the equaliser.
The Chelsea boss said: “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. We will analyse strongly what we did wrongly because a couple of things need to get better.”
Asked about his team selection — he did not start with Lampard, Michael Essien, Cole or Fernando Torres — Villas-Boas said: “You can have your opinion but it was based on what was the best team in my thoughts.”
Asked if he believed if he would still be in charge for the second leg, the Portuguese added: “For sure.”
Goalkeeper Petr Cech acknowledged mistakes on the pitch are not helping Villas-Boas or his Chelsea players.
Cech said: “We know he (Villas-Boas) keeps working hard for us.
“He prepares every game with 100% commitment and we appreciate it. But if you have players on the pitch making mistakes he can’t help it.”
Putting your faith in men such as David Luiz, Raul Meireles and Florent Malouda is fraught with danger. Chelsea demonstrated here that with these understudies in place, they may as well not have a defence.
Napoli missed enough chances to end all doubt over the tie but the ones they took, twice through Ezequiel Lavezzi and once by Edinson Cavani, put them in the driving seat, though Juan Mata’s first-half goal, which came completely against the run of play, could yet prove vital.
Contrast Chelsea with a vibrant young Napoli side, supported in fanatical, colourful style from the raised banks of the concrete bowl they call home. Only two of the so-called ‘Three Tenors’ shone, but despite Marek Hamsik not being at his best, Lavezzi and Cavani were quite good enough. They terrorised Luiz and Gary Cahill. They were scintillating. Chelsea simply could not stop them.
Chelsea were all over the place defensively, with Napoli wasting a glorious early chance through Cavani.
Yet football is nothing if not unpredictable. Chelsea had been pinned back, barely able to put two passes together, before they took the lead shortly before the half-hour mark.
Daniel Sturridge played the ball inside and, when Paulo Cannavaro’s attempted clearance turned into a huge slice thanks to a bobble, Mata waltzed into the area to slide home a cute volley past Morgan De Sanctis and into the bottom corner.
Napoli were suddenly wobbling, the crowd vocal in their unease. It should have been two, Luiz heading inches over the crossbar from Mata’s corner.
And that miss assumed even more importance when Napoli equalised within a minute. It was poor defending by Meireles, who was sold a dummy by Lavezzi’s drop of the shoulder, but it was still a wonderful finish from the Argentine, who curled the ball into the bottom corner from 20 yards.
Both teams had seemingly forgotten how to defend and in injury-time Napoli got their second goal. Hamsik played the ball back to Gokhan Inler, whose cross was turned in at the far post by Cavani.
Chelsea began the second half well but their frailties were clear when Luiz’s dreadful attempted clearance was blocked easily by Cavani, who drew the hapless Cech before squaring for Lavezzi to score. Now both Chelsea and Villas-Boas must be hoping for a miracle to save them now.
Subs for Napoli: Dzemaili for Lavezzi, 74, Hamsik for Pandev, 82.
Subs for Chelsea: Cole for Bosingwa, 11; Essien for Meireles, 70; Lampard for Malouda, 70.