Tuesday 21 May 2019

Klopp takes blame as Insigne's late winner halts Reds' surge

Napoli 1 Liverpool 0

Lorenzo Insigne scores the winner for Napoli against Liverpool last night. Photo: Reuters
Lorenzo Insigne scores the winner for Napoli against Liverpool last night. Photo: Reuters

Chris Bascombe

Liverpool are not used to this. For the first time since his appointment, Jurgen Klopp has lost a group game in Europe.

After Klopp's victory in the last minute against Paris Saint-Germain, Lorenzo Insigne condemned Liverpool to defeat in the Stadio San Paolo in the 90th minute.

Liverpool's Mohamed Salah in action with Napoli's Kalidou Koulibaly. Photo: Reuters
Liverpool's Mohamed Salah in action with Napoli's Kalidou Koulibaly. Photo: Reuters

It had been coming. Substitute Dries Mertens had twice gone close, including a header off the bar. For much of the game Liverpool were well protected at the back, Virgil van Dijk excelling until caught out of position by Jose Callejon whose cross sparked wild celebrations.

For Napoli coach Carlo Ancelotti it was a tactical triumph, a cautious, drab game bereft of meaningful incident until the hosts gambled in the closing stages. Liverpool could never penetrate, their front three again suffering a frustrating night.

They still looked like they had done enough until the late intervention and Klopp took responsibility for the sedate performance.

"The second half was not good enough. It is a bad sign when you have to say your goalkeeper is the best player," he said.

Napoli coach Carlo Ancelotti. Photo: Reuters
Napoli coach Carlo Ancelotti. Photo: Reuters

"I have to accept that a big part of the performance is my fault. I need a night to look at it, but it did not look how it should have looked."

However, Klopp hinted Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane were not dynamic enough in the attacking third, on a night when Mohamed Salah failed to fire once again.

"Sometimes Bobby (Firmino) ran too long with the ball, or Sadio ran too long," added Klopp. "When that happens, you cannot produce. The midfielders or the full-backs tried to go forward, but we lost the ball and had to go back in the other direction."

There can be few renowned clubs with a stadium like that of Napoli. The Stadio San Paolo feels like an ancient ruin more than sports arena - a venue where you expect Tony Robinson and his Time Team archaeologists.

Liverpool's Andrew Robertson and Napoli's Jose Callejon challenge for the ball. Photo: Reuters
Liverpool's Andrew Robertson and Napoli's Jose Callejon challenge for the ball. Photo: Reuters

Such were the patches on the turf it looked like the diggers had been let loose as a cunning tactical ploy to prevent Liverpool's attacking fluidity.

If the building and pitch is unfit for purpose, the audience extends the unwelcome vibe. No matter how poor Napoli's form their venue is a weapon - although given the debris around the stadium you can be forgiven for interpreting that literally.

Klopp was protecting an impeccable European record as Liverpool manager, but the mild criticism so far this season is that his side have conceded flamboyance to evolve solidity. Those 15-minute attacking blitzes so often leading to two or three goals have been conspicuously absent, Klopp is aware of that, even if his pre-match observation was about it only being a matter of time before "everything clicked".

His inclusion of Naby Keita for Jordan Henderson must have been intended to hasten that process, adding more midfield craft. That never worked.

Napoli's David Ospina celebrates. Photo: Reuters
Napoli's David Ospina celebrates. Photo: Reuters

After an inauspicious 16 minutes during which Keita gave the ball away often and almost gifted an opening goal to Insigne - the striker firing wide - the Guinea man had to be carried out the stadium with what looked a worrying back injury. Henderson, presumably rested for Sunday's visit of Manchester City, was summoned.

What followed for the remainder of the first half was an inability to link Liverpool's midfield and attack - although every pass along the ground gave the impression it was being headed by moles emerging from the coverings of grass.

This looked like an evening where the newly-formed reliability in defence was assisted by the midfield three protecting rather than swarming forward.

Liverpool earliest probes came from their full-backs, Andy Robertson especially looking capable of troubling Nikola Maksimovic.

Alisson was the busier goalkeeper, pushing aside Arkadiusz Milik's shot from distance early in the second half. Trent Alexander-Arnold's last ditch tackle also denied Fabian Ruiz a clear sight at Liverpool's No 1.

It was another example of the momentum being with the hosts, Liverpool setting into a pattern more in keeping with European conquests of old - trying to soak pressure rather push on. Having beaten PSG a fortnight ago, a draw here would be no disaster in this group. Ancelotti sensed it and risked more.

That made this game as tactical as Liverpool have played on the continent, probably since Rafa Benitez's reign. Ancelotti had to break the stalemate, opting for a double substitution on 68 minutes - Simone Verdi and Mertens introduced.

How it worked. Mertens made an instant impact, his shot cleared off the line by Gomez before he met Raul Albiol's cross and struck the woodwork.

There were signs Liverpool could yet steal the win, Mane and Salah finding more space, but the Italians could take pride in not only pacifying Klopp's attack, but finally penetrating a defence in which Van Dijk and Joe Gomez has previously stood firm.

© Daily Telegraph, London


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