Monday 25 March 2019

Lorenzo Insigne scores late winner as Jurgen Klopp loses first group game in Europe as Liverpool manager

Napoli 1 Liverpool 0

Napoli's Lorenzo Insigne celebrates after the match REUTERS/Alberto Lingria
Napoli's Lorenzo Insigne celebrates after the match REUTERS/Alberto Lingria

Chris Bascombe

Liverpool have not become accustomed 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 90thminute.

It had been coming. Substitute Dries Mertens had twice gone close, including a volley off the crossbar. 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 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 but having created tornadoes around Europe with their thrilling attacking play last season, Liverpool were sedated in Naples. Now their group has opened up.

As Klopp’s Liverpool arrived in Naples, there was a reminder of how terrifying the club’s last visit to the Stadio San Paolo was.  Forget the supposedly fearsome atmosphere, in 2010 a Liverpool team including Paul Konchesky, Christian Poulsen and Milan Jovanovic played here. Nothing last night could be more terrifying than that, regardless of the less than salubrious surroundings – the most disruptive of which was an uneven pitch.

There can be few renowned clubs with a stadium like that of Napoli. It feels like an ancient ruin more than sports arena – a venue where you might expect Tony Robinson and his Time Team archaeologists. 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 front three combining with fluidity. So often the intended route of a pass was diverted beyond reach.

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  wisely balked at a question about his side coping with these tough away days. “Rome?” he responded, an acknowledgement of his side narrowly preserving a 5-2 lead in Italy five months ago.

He could have added Seville, where a three-goal lead was surrendered at this stage last season, or Villarreal – scene of Klopp’s only other defeat in Uefa competition outside a final.

Each week this Liverpool team looks different to that which once trembled in defence no matter how significant their advantage. Not all is overwhelmingly positive, though.

The mild criticism so far is Liverpool have conceded flamboyance so evolve this solidity. Those fifteen-minute attacking blitzes so often leading to two or three goals have been conspicuously absent, Liverpool offering impressively efficient rather than showy football.

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. After an inauspicious 16 minutes during which Keita gave the ball away often and almost gifted an opening goal to Insigne – the Napoli striker firing wide - the Guinea man had to be carried out the stadium with what looked a worrying 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 - the peerless Van Dijk and impressive Joe Gomez – 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.

Carlo Ancelotti, described as a ‘smart fox’ by Klopp, will have enjoyed the scruffiness of those exchanges, the memories of a 5-0 pre-season defeat surely not as insignificant as both sides tried to claim. Psychologically, it clearly influenced Ancelotti’s strategy as he preferred Fabian Ruiz to Piotr Zielinski.

Alisson, who played here for Roma, was the busier keeper throughout, pushing aside Arkadiusz Milik’s shot from distance early in the second half.

Alexander-Arnold’s last ditch tackle also denied Fabian Ruiz a clear sight at Liverpool’s number one.

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 almost made an instant impact, his shot cleared off the line by Gomez before he met 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 Gomez has previously stood firm.

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