x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Napoli's 'Three Tenors' are ready to outgun their Chelsea counterparts

Edinson Cavani, Ezequiel Lavezzi and Marek Hamsik form a well-tuned and prolific front three at the Italian club, while their counterparts tonight are hindered by the floundering figure of Fernando Torres.

The trio of Marek Hamsek, left, Edinson Cavani, centre, and Ezequiel Lavezzi are a well-oiled, prolific unit.
The trio of Marek Hamsek, left, Edinson Cavani, centre, and Ezequiel Lavezzi are a well-oiled, prolific unit.

Edinson Cavani, Serie A's second-highest goalscorer so far this season, had been with Napoli about six months when he told why he supposed it suited him so well.

"Playing in this team is like being a member of a well-tuned orchestra," he said, "where all the instruments are perfectly in accord. There's nothing missing."

These sorts of musical metaphors attach themselves quite often to Walter Mazzarri's side, and particularly to the way Napoli attack though their front trio: the Uruguayan Cavani, the Argentine Ezequiel Lavezzi and the Slovakian Marek Hamsik.

The so-called Three Tenors, as they get nicknamed, with an operatic flourish, combined to contribute 43 of the goals that pushed Napoli into third place in last season's Italian championship, earning the club the right to perform in the Champions League for the first time in two decades, the competition in which they will take on Chelsea for a place in the quarter-finals, starting at the San Paolo tonight.

They combined again on Napoli's last outing, the weekend's impressive 3-0 away win at Fiorentina, which should embolden them ahead of the visit of a brittle Chelsea.

After two minutes, Lavezzi found Hamsik who found Cavani, who struck his 18th of the season; Cavani's second of the night came from a Hamsik through-ball. Lavezzi struck the third, which delighted the Argentine; he has been inventive and industrious in recent months but struggled for goals.

Even so, no one doubts the validity of his credentials as one of the Tenors.

In Mazzarri's preferred 3-4-3 formation, the front three sometimes vary the positions they take up, Hamsik and Lavezzi exchanging flanks, but alterations to the identity of the trio are rare.

The club's other strikers know clearly they are second choice.

The situation at Chelsea is utterly distinct. Front threes, more or less, have been the club's preferred modus operandi for a few seasons; big, expensively assembled squads have been their mark since Chelsea came into Roman Abramovich's money some nine years ago.

Synchronicity or finely-tuned orchestration is not a current characteristic, though.

Andre Villas-Boas, the head coach, grapples with a squad "in transition".

Chelsea arrived in southern Italy yesterday in poor form. Saturday's draw at Birmingham City in the FA Cup was their fourth successive match without a victory.

The most likely front three to be selected by Villa-Boas for this tie would feature Juan Mata and Daniel Sturridge. The question who plays at centre-forward - Fernando Torres or Didier Drogba - is more difficult.

Sturridge scored against Birmingham, and the England Under 21 international has shown good personal progress this season, although amid some uncertainty about his preferred playing role, central striker or attacking from wide.

Mata, signed from Valencia, has been a great success, both as converter of fine goals and crosser and passer.

For Torres, though, a second tortured year as English football's costliest striker is weighing on him.

Against Birmingham, where Villas-Boas replaced him with Drogba at half time, the Spaniard registered his 21st consecutive outing - nine of them as a substitute - without a goal.

The £50 million (Dh291.5m) Chelsea paid Liverpool for him 13 months ago seems more of a drag on his body and soul with almost every match, just as the £12m Napoli agreed with Palermo for Cavani in 2010 looks more and more like a snip.

Although Chelsea have greater depth of resources - an alternative front three would include on the flanks the leading internationals Salomon Kalou and Florent Malouda - they must envy the smoothness with which Napoli's Three Tenors often combine.

Plainly, there is a compelling case for the experienced Drogba to start instead of Torres tonight; almost as clear is that if Villas-Boas is to prove himself the right man, medium- and long-term for the in the job Abramovich gave him, getting the best out of Torres would be a feather in his cap.

But he cannot wait forever for the Spaniard to hit the right notes.