Napoli 1 - 0 Liverpool
Napoli: Insigne 90’
It may have seemed utterly unlikely a week ago, but the Reds that went into the League Cup match with Chelsea having won seven straight to open their season, have now gone three consecutive games without a win, and for the first time this year, zero points was exactly what Jürgen Klopp’s charges deserved.
Demonstrating his thoughts on the significance of the match-up and the prowess of the opposition, the German manager named a nearly unchanged line-up from the team that drew 1-1 at Stamford Bridge at the weekend, with Naby Keita coming into the side for Jordan Henderson. The Guinean would not last long, however, and was replaced by the captain in the 19th minute after suffering a back injury of undetermined origin.
Not much else occurred in the opening 45 minutes, beyond Lorenzo Insigne drilling a left-footed effort wide of Alisson’s far post ten minutes after the opening whistle, and Virgil van DIjk deflecting an Arkadiusz Milik shot from the top of the 18 straight at the Brazilian goalkeeper halfway through the frame. The game was largely a mess — with a hard, unpredictable pitch playing its role — and neither side manager to put together particularly impressive series of play. The hosts held the ball better than their visitors, and Liverpool’s deadly front three were starved of service.
Napoli took further charge as the second half progressed, beating the Reds in every duel and forcing Alisson into making saves, albeit mostly from range. The Brazilian saw his rebound cleared by Joe Gomez after saving a Milik shot from distance on 50 minutes, before jumping into action again a minute later, this time from Fabián Ruiz.
The visitors had their best spell about 20 minutes from time, as Mohamed Salah placed his shot well wide of the target following a corner cleared to the top of the 18 yard box, before a through ball to Sadio Mane was cleared off the Senegalese forward’s feet by a diving David Ospina.
The hosts turned up the heat and Liverpool faded badly down the stretch, and a minutes after José Callejón was wrongly called offside on a through ball, Gomez had to clear a dangerous-looking cross from a yard out before any Napoli attacker could get to it.
With ten minutes remaining, the Reds breathed a sigh of relief, as Dries Mertens was only able to crash Mário Rui’s terrific cross onto the crossbar, and Gomez was on hand to clear the loose ball. At the other end, another through ball — this time from Mané to Salah following an excellent interception from substitute Fabinho — was cleared off the attacker’s feet by Ospina, the Spaniard racing off his line and well outside the box to make the clearance.
It would not hold, in the end, and with injury time approaching, a Mertens backheel found Callejón racing into acres of space down Liverpool’s left, where the Spaniard slid a perfect cross to the back post for Insigne to dispatch. Nobody could have any complaints about the result.
There’s not much to say about the game itself; the pitch was bad, Liverpool were bad, and Napoli were pretty good. The ways in which the Reds were bad were interesting, however, as Klopp’s men found themselves outbattled constantly, losing 50-50 duels with regularity and failing to reciprocate their hosts’ relentless pressure on any given ball carrier.
Carlo Ancelotti’s 4-4-2 shape morphed into a 3-5-2 in attack, and Rui was consistently found wide open on Liverpool’s right side. With Salah left high up the pitch and no midfielder providing cover for Trent Alexander-Arnold at the back, it was utterly unsurprising that the majority of the Partenopei’s big chances arrived on that flank.
Keïta’s departure saw the Reds desperately missing a link between midfield and attack, and despite aggressively pushing their defensive line up the pitch, the Merseysiders seemed completely unable to close down the midfield, with Milik, Insigne and Marek Hamsik continually popping up in the half-space unchallenged. Allan had a monster game, and terrorised Liverpool’s attackers throughout, denying them any time to make the right decision on the ball.
Worrying signs of fatigue and tactical dullness, then, ahead of what is likely to be Reds’ toughest match-up remaining in the calendar year. Pep Guardiola’s league leading Manchester City side are coming to Anfield on Sunday, and if Liverpool are to have any hope of heading into the international break on a high, they will have to perform much, much better than has been the case in the past week.