Thursday 17 October 2019

Off-colour Reds suffer another bout of away-day blues

Napoli 2 Liverpool 0

Napoli’s Fernando Llorente (C) scores past Liverpool’s Adrian during last night’s clash in Naples. Photo: Getty
Napoli’s Fernando Llorente (C) scores past Liverpool’s Adrian during last night’s clash in Naples. Photo: Getty

Chris Bascombe

Heavy lies the crown for the Champions League holders.

Liverpool's defence of their title began with defeat in Naples, former Spurs striker Fernando Llorente inflicting a measure of revenge for his pain in Madrid last June.

It was a defeat that did not look likely until the 82nd minute, when Andy Robertson was adjudged to have tripped Jose Callejon. Napoli looked to be clinging on to a draw until then, visibly tiring until Dries Mertens beat Adrian with the spot kick, despite the Spaniard going the right way.

A rare error by Virgil van Dijk gifted Llorente the second in injury time.

This was a tough loss for Liverpool but after losing all three away group games last season, it is a concern that the miserable sequence continues.

Manager Jurgen Klopp might console himself with the positive omens as history repeated itself in the Italian city. A late defeat to Napoli at the same stage a year ago proved no barrier to ultimate success.

Napoli's Dries Mertens scores a penalty. (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia)
Napoli's Dries Mertens scores a penalty. (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia)

There is a temptation to see the start of Liverpool's Champions League defence as part of a prolonged victory lap.

Photograph

Klopp is having none of that, of course. There has been a concerted effort to bury the photograph album dated June 2019, its excavation to be agreed in time for post-career reunions. There is much more to achieve - prove even - until then. Especially in this particular city.

Napoli seemed the ideal opponent with which to launch a fresh European campaign, a reminder that even the finest teams can suffer an 'off day' as Klopp described the last visit to the San Paolo stadium. Standing still to admire your best work is an invitation to others to sprint past.

Liverpool's Mohamed Salah misses a chance to score. Photo: Action Images via Reuters/Andrew Couldridge
Liverpool's Mohamed Salah misses a chance to score. Photo: Action Images via Reuters/Andrew Couldridge

So Liverpool arrived in Italy paradoxically wanting more of the same in the competition, but less of it in the venue where they were hopeless in last year's group stage.

Napoli were unlucky not to progress at Klopp's expense last season and they look capable of going far in the competition this time, beautifully balanced and boasting one of the most coveted defenders in Kalidou Koulibaly.

With so many major clubs hunting a central defender in the mould of Van Dijk, it is surprising there has not been an offer Napoli cannot refuse for Koulibaly, who seemed to relish trying to repel Liverpool's front three.

The Senegalese defender was ably assisted, Mario Rui impressing when keeping pace with the first Mo Salah sprint on three minutes. This would be a theme of the first half, especially, Liverpool counter-attacking with menace but frustrated by the bravery, positioning and speed of the home defence.

It made for a high quality game as the home side carried their own considerable threat. Adrian was the first to be called into action, twice pushing aside Fabian Ruiz attempts from the edge of the area.

The real difference between Liverpool in Naples this time and last was in midfield, however. Fabinho's thieving spree in the centre-circle sent Salah, Sadio Mane and Firmino clear on numerous occasions, the threat of both attacks such it served only to underline the expertise of the defenders.

Liverpool stepped up the tempo just before half-time, Firmino's glancing header an inch wide from James Milner's cross.

A box-to-box move worthy of European champions involving Henderson, Firmino and Mane almost presented Salah with a tap-in only for another last-ditch intervention. It looked like an evening where both coaches would be lavishing praise on their backline.

Superb

The best was yet to come from Adrian, who produced a superb save to stop Mertens giving Napoli the lead two minutes into the second half, his volley somehow pushed onto the roof of the net.

Mane's sprint of 60 yards ending with an overhit ball to Salah was a prime example of magnificence in the build-up undermined at the last, critical stage.

When Firmino did pick out a team-mate with a precise chip on 59 minutes, Salah was unusually lacking the clinical finish, miskicking a left-footed volley.

The Egyptian hit a more customary strike moments later but Napoli goalkeeper Alex Meret was up to the challenge, pushing aside the strike with his fingertips.

There was no greater sign of what it takes to keep up the pace with Klopp's side than Napoli central midfielder Allan falling with cramp. There were still 17 minutes remaining. It demonstrated the effort required, the intensity of the game.

But Robertson's trip on Callejon gave Mertens the opportunity to strike and the home side a win to cling on to.

In injury time, Llorente pounced on Van Dijk's error to double the lead.

It is a familiar start to a European campaign for Klopp.

He will hope for the same conclusion. (© The Daily Telegraph, London)

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