Having beaten Paris Saint-Germain in the opening round of this season’s Champions League, Liverpool traveled to Italy for matchday 2 where they faced Napoli at their San Paolo stadium. PSG had annihilated Red Star Belgrade earlier in the evening in Paris by 6-1.
Napoli failed to beat Red Star in Belgrade in the first round with the game ending goalless, and they had not only a point to prove, but they also needed points badly if they were to think about qualifying for the knockout stages. On the other hand, another three points would have allowed Liverpool to sail into the next two games, a double-header against Red Star, a lot calmer.
Is there anybody among Liverpool fans who doesn’t remember facing a team lead by Carlo Ancelotti? Not likely. The 59-year-old was in the dugout with AC Milan in two finals of this competition against the Reds, with a mixed result – the famous night in Istanbul in 2005 and the Rossoneri’s revenge two years later in Athens. He had already won the trophy with them before that, in 2003.
Now he leads the team of Napoli, and once again he awaited the onset of Liverpool. His injury worries included defenders Vlad Chiriches and Faouzi Ghoulam, as well as goalkeeper Alex Meret. This was the starting XI he eventually put together:
Beside Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Adam Lallana, Jurgen Klopp had no notable absentees. Divock Origi had recovered from an ankle problem and Virgil van Dijk was ready after his rib injury. The German lined the lads up like this:
The First Half
The two teams entered the clash feeling for each other’s heartbeat for a while, with Napoli looking perhaps slightly more comfortable and Liverpool a bit sloppy. Salah, Mane and Keita each needlessly gave the ball away once in the first five minutes.
The home side mostly looked to exploit the Reds’ high defensive line by deploying runners in behind, and they were caught offside several times early on. But for all that, it was Ospina who was the first of the goalkeepers made to work – twice, before Callejon’s side-switching pass found Insigne in a dangerous position behind Trent’s back and the Italian forward’s shot had Alisson sprawling; but trickled just wide.
Napoli soon started pushing forward and had Liverpool pegged back considerably after 10 minutes had passed, but a miscalculated backpass from Allan almost put Salah through in the 15th minute and made Ospina run out. A minute later Insigne tried his luck from range but couldn’t get the shot near the target.
In the 17th minute, Keita sat down in the middle of the pitch on his own accord. It was hard to say what exactly had happened to him, but he was eventually stretchered off and Jordan Henderson took the armband as he stepped out to replace the former RB Leipzig dynamo. The captain took up the No.6 position and Wijnaldum moved further up.
With Henderson in the team, the midfield seemed somewhat tighter and the Napolitans were forced to take their play to the flanks more. Not that it bothered them too much with Callejon and Insigne deployed there, but it reduced the variety of their attacks. After 25 minutes, Koulibaly ventured forward and lost the ball to van Dijk, before he mowed the Dutchman down and got himself booked.
Liverpool then tried to hit back with Mane employing Robertson on the left side and the Scott pulling it back to Wijnaldum at 20 yards, but Wijnaldum’s shot was very poor.
On the half-hour mark, a slip from the Dutch midfielder gave Napoli a chance for a quick attack, but Robertson was there to track back and thwart Hamšik’s effort to send Callejon through. At the other end, Koulibaly also did well to stop Salah. Then Napoli went forward again and Milik got the ball between Gomez and van Dijk inside the box and blasted it on target, but Alisson was there to save it after van Dijk’s foot had cushioned it slightly.
As Liverpool pressed forward again, Ospina was forced to come out and punch a cross clear, and he caught Albiol with his fist. The centre-back got up and played on, however.
The game was slowly picking up pace towards the break. Both teams aimed to move the ball quickly forward, but the final pass always lacked quality at both ends of the pitch.
In the 42nd minute, Henderson released Firmino through the middle and the Brazilian was brought to a halt by Albiol using his arms. How Hungarian referee Viktor Kassai failed to see it as a bookable offence remains a mystery. Less than two minutes later, Koulibaly was also lucky to avoid what would have been his second yellow for taking out Firmino.
Due to Keita’s injury, there were four minutes of stoppage time in the first half, and as it started Hamšik tried to put Callejon in behind with a good diagonal, but the winger had started his run a split-second too soon and was caught offside. Milner earned a booking for a late tackle on Allan and Alisson comfortably saved Milik’s poor effort from range. Liverpool pressed their hosts hard in the dying seconds, but they overcomplicated matters and the referee eventually lost patience, blew his whistle and sent both teams to their dressing rooms.
The Second Half
The tempo of the game remained rather high after the break. The ball was still moving fast past the middle ground.
Salah at one end and Insigne at the other both tried to run in behind to latch onto a pass but both failed. In the 50th minute, Milik tried his luck with a decent shot from range and made Alisson work hard, the Brazil ‘keeper parried it and Gomez cleared it out. A minute later Ruiz tried a volley from range but it went straight into Alisson.
Napoli looked livelier, but Mane was giving them trouble with his pace and strength on the ball. After one of his charges Liverpool stayed in the opposition half for a while but they couldn’t create anything of note.
At this point, the hosts turned up the power and pushed forward a bit more decisively, and the Reds were hard put to it to defend for a while. Both centre-backs and both fullbacks had their hands full with Insigne, Milik, Callejon and Hamšik all looking extra sharp, and at one occasion they set up Ruiz for a chance inside the box. The midfielder turned Gomez with an impressive dummy, but Milner appeared out of nowhere and snatched the ball away.
But Napoli were still knocking on the door.
At one point, Liverpool’s front three combined well to take the ball forward and got inside the box, but it turned into a good moment to observe the perseverance of the home team. Within a few seconds, eight players in blue were there to defend. It was the case again a minute later when Trent nicely employed Salah inside the box. The Egyptian turned and twisted in his recognizable style, but he was crowded out eventually.
In the 68th minute, Milner took a corner that missed the head of van Dijk by an inch, Henderson picked it up and returned it into the box, Napoli cleared but only as far as Salah at 20 yards. Salah’s shot made Ospina dive, but it went just wide of the post.
Then Milik and Ruiz made way for Dries Mertens and Simone Verdi.
The ball stayed in Napoli’s half for several minutes, but then chances started coming in thick at both ends. Another run from Insigne created a dangerous moment for Liverpool’s defence before Ospina got a hand to Firmino’s pass just as Mane was about to go around him; Mertens set up Callejon for a glorious chance but Alisson saved it. Callejon however beat Alisson a minute later from a similar position, but Gomez cleared it off the line.
Desiring a fresh pair of legs in midfield, Klopp sent on Fabinho instead of Milner in the 75th minute.
Liverpool again pressed hard and won the ball high up several times, but they still couldn’t get past Napoli’s resilient defending. Koulibaly in particular was having a great game.
With nine minutes to go, Ancelotti pulled his last string and introduced Piotr Zielinski for Hamšik.
Straight afterwards, Napoli had the best chance of the game thus far. A great cross from the left by Mario Rui found Mertens on a run and the Belgian flicked it past Alisson and hit the crossbar from six yards. The Italian side were looking more dangerous by the minute, and as the game approached its finale the Reds were barely holding on.
They did, however, threaten seriously with Mane putting Salah through, but Ospina was once again quick off his line.
With just over two minutes remaining, Mane made way for Daniel Sturridge.
But it was Napoli’s turn to start an attack, and they played it patiently this time. Eventually, Callejon played a fantastic one-two with Mertens and escaped Robertson down the right before whipping a low ball across the box that fooled Alisson and found Insigne on a full run at the far post.
Without any time to lose, Klopp instructed van Dijk to go up and play centre-forward. The ball started flying towards the Dutchman but Napoli held on for all three minutes of added time.
All in all, it was an underwhelming performance from the Reds and the Italians deserved all the points. On another day, this should have been a game just as Liverpool like them. Not this time, though. The players in blue shirts were showing more desire, more commitment, and the goal they scored had been on the cards. Meanwhile, apart from making him leave his box a few times and deal with a few crosses, Liverpool barely troubled Ospina at all. It was the first game in a long, long time where the Reds failed to get a shot on target.
Things are far from being all black as far as the Champions League goes. Make no mistake, it’s certainly a setback with both PSG catching up and Napoli overtaking everyone on points, but it’s still Liverpool with an advantage as they now play Red Star twice, first at Anfield and then in Belgrade.
Probably the biggest downside of this defeat is the psychological effect it might have on the team, as well as on their opponents at the weekend – Manchester City. Guardiola’s men made up somewhat for their defeat to Lyon in the first round by winning away to Hoffenheim and they will be looking at this game as a sign of weakness from Liverpool, especially in the light of the fact that this was the third game in a row without a win for the Reds, in three different competitions.
Klopp has a lot of work to do before Sunday comes, but we know well by now he’s capable of doing it.
We Walk On.