Chelsea’s old guard rescued their Champions League season and the reputation of English football as they produced one of the great European comebacks to reach the quarter-finals 5-4 on aggregate.
Didier Drogba, John Terry and Frank Lampard – the men the sacked Andre Villas-Boas seemed so determined to discard – proved just how difficult they would be to replace with a goal apiece in a thrilling extra-time win.
Although Gokhan Inler netted for Napoli at 2-0, Branislav Ivanovic settled the tie on the stroke of half-time in extra-time on a night every bit as historic as Chelsea captain Terry had predicted.
If this is the result of player power then maybe caretaker manager Roberto Di Matteo – who was jumping for joy at the final whistle – should just let his veterans do it their way.
Stamford Bridge was full of flag-waving believers before kick-off, with both sets of fans creating a noise akin to that during Napoli’s 3-1 win in Italy three weeks earlier.
But despite Daniel Sturridge raising Chelsea hopes when his first-time shot from Drogba’s knockdown forced a fine Morgan De Sanctis save, Napoli were almost embarrassingly superior in the opening quarter.
Their much-vaunted attacking trio all threatened, Marek Hamsik first to go close when his deflected shot from Ezequiel Lavezzi’s pass almost wrongfooted Petr Cech.
Edinson Cavani curled over before missing a great chance when he steered Hamsik’s low cross into the side-netting.
Lavezzi beat the offside trap to blast at the feet of Cech, who then palmed away a Hamsik shot.
Juan Mata had the ball in the net at the other end after Sturridge was flagged offside and that seemed to galvanise Chelsea, who took the lead completely against the run of play in the 29th minute.
The ball was worked to makeshift left-winger Ramires, whose right-footed cross saw Drogba get in front of Salvatore Aronica to power a header into the net.
Napoli were reeling and Hugo Campagnaro got a vital touch to prevent Drogba tapping home Sturridge’s cross two minutes later.
From the resulting corner, the visitors launched a lightning break, Cavani wasting what had been a three on two when he dragged wide.
Christian Maggio limped off eight minutes before half-time to be replaced by former Liverpool full-back Andrea Dossena and Chelsea finished the first half on top, with Aronica and Paolo Cannavaro both making desperate clearances.
Napoli’s nerves cost them dearly straight after the restart when Campagnaro was spooked into conceding a corner and Terry glanced a brilliant near-post header into the net.
Forced forward, it was Napoli’s turn to provoke some shaky defending and they were back ahead in the tie in spectacular fashion in the 55th minute.
Inler controlled Terry’s headed clearance on his chest before unleashing a superb half-volley into the bottom corner.
Di Matteo – who had been about to send on Jose Bosingwa before the goal – instead chose to introduce Torres for Sturridge.
The Spaniard almost unwittingly broke his goal drought when Ivanovic’s drive hit him and was parried by De Sanctis, who then produced a world-class save to palm behind Drogba’s shot on the turn.
Ashley Cole got away with a slip when Cech saved smartly from Juan Zuniga, whose miscued clearance almost gifted Chelsea the goal they needed to force extra-time.
It did not matter as Dossena obliged with a senseless handball from Ivanovic’s header that allowed Lampard to blast home from the penalty spot 15 minutes from time.
The game went into extra-time and Ivanvovic flashed a header wide and Hamsik did likewise with a wonderful volley.
Di Matteo then withdrew Mata for Florent Malouda and an injured-looking Terry for Bosingwa.
Torres missed a glorious chance when De Sanctis came rushing out and misjudged Drogba’s long ball, leaving the striker with a tight angle but an empty net he failed to find.
Despair turned to joy seconds before half-time, Drogba’s superb turn and cross finding Ivanovic, who lashed the ball into the roof of the net.
Napoli sent on Goran Pandev for Hamsik but Chelsea were untroubled and Drogba almost scored a fifth.
The result means the Blues became only the fourth club in 45 attempts to come back from losing a first leg by two or more goals, ensuring England’s run of having at least one Champions League quarter-finalist since 1996 continues.