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SSC Napoli's extra-time UEFA Champions League round of 16 defeat by Chelsea FC was a bitter pill to swallow but captain Paolo Cannavaro declared: "We go out with our heads held high."
It was not supposed to end like this. Having established a comfortable 3-1 lead in the first leg in Naples, a Napoli side flying high on the back of a five-match winning sequence merely had to protect their advantage at Stamford Bridge to reach the last-eight stage for the first time.
However, despite beginning brightly, the Partenopei failed to make the most of their opportunities and instead headers from Didier Drogba and John Terry put Chelsea back in control. Though Gökhan Inler restored the visitors' aggregate lead, Frank Lampard forced extra time with a 75th-minute penalty, awarded for a handball by Andrea Dossena. The Blues eventually sunk the Azzurri with a 105th-minute Branislav Ivanović strike.
Napoli were left wondering what might have been. "We had lots of chances but we were unable to take them," said centre-back Cannavaro. "We also made the odd mistake and that's why we lost.
It hurts so much to go out like this but we go out with our heads held high."
A misplaced header led to Chelsea's second goal, Hugo Campagnaro sending a harmless ball out for a corner instead of leaving it for goalkeeper Morgan De Sanctis. Terry scored from the ensuing cross, yet Cannavaro refused to point the finger at his fellow defender.
"On this ground you can't hear a thing," said the 30-year-old. "There was a shout [to Campagnaro] to leave the ball but it was crazy out there. It really is such a shame. Playing on European stages like this is what players want more than anything. The only thing we can do now is aim for a third-place finish in Serie A so we can come back next season."
Defeat must have been particularly galling for Cannavaro, a proud Neapolitan who was prepared to play Serie B football in order to return to his home-town club in 2006. Sx years on, Napoli can reflect on an extraordinary maiden UEFA Champions League campaign, which included qualification from a group including FC Bayern München, Manchester City FC and Villarreal CF.
It was a great adventure for us, we had an amazing Champions League campaign and we have certainly been enriched by the experience," said De Sanctis. "It was a shame to go out tonight because we had a golden opportunity to go through. We played well but we struggled to cope with Chelsea's physical side. Nonetheless, we can take heart from the fact every time we have played against great opponents in Europe we have managed to impose our game on them."
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