Tuesday 15 October 2019

Tactical battle with Napoli's 'smart fox' Ancelotti stirs Klopp

Wary Liverpool boss tells Italian not to call him Mr Nice Guy as he backs Salah to show he's Mighty Mo again in hostile Naples cauldron

One for all: Liverpool’s Xherdan Shaqiri, Dejan Lovren and Mo Salah share a light-hearted moment during training in Naples last night. Photo: AFP/Getty Images
One for all: Liverpool’s Xherdan Shaqiri, Dejan Lovren and Mo Salah share a light-hearted moment during training in Naples last night. Photo: AFP/Getty Images

Simon Hughes

Naples is a Catholic Calcutta, a city of babel where humanity spills onto you and the howling sirens of the Carabinieri are as inescapable as Mount Vesuvius, which broods even when the skies are as terrible and oily as this.

The presence of football sharpens a jagged edge. The last time Liverpool played here eight years ago, brothers from Wirral communicated in sign language and feigned deafness as they returned to their hotel in an attempt to avoid trouble.

The day before, visiting reporters pretended to be German businessmen after they were approached by a gang leader inside a restaurant.

Stabbings

Stabbings elsewhere that night led to charges of attempted murder and this explains why on Monday, organisers on Merseyside advised travelling fans not to wander off alone during their trips this week, informing them too that they'd not be allowed to wear belts inside the Stadio San Paolo presumably because they could be used as weapons, as is the practice among Italian ultras.

In 2010, the conclusion of the city's anti-terror commander was stark: "There was no provocation at all from the Liverpool supporters."

Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp. Photo: Carlo Hermann/AFP
Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp. Photo: Carlo Hermann/AFP

When Rafa Benitez coached on this unpredictable terrain for two seasons he chose to live away from the chaos, instead setting up base at a golf complex opposite Napoli's training ground up in Castel Volturno.

Benitez is an unusual character and he's also extremely dedicated (he doesn't have much time for golf) but he did know about the sort of distractions that can shake the focus of someone in his position having been guided by his neighbour, the Naples chief of police.

He didn't complain about the routine which forced him to trudge back to his office to use a landline due to the abysmal mobile reception at his temporary home.

Coincidentally, Benitez was in charge when Jurgen Klopp had his own meeting with Neapolitan cordite. Five years ago this week, Liverpool's manager was facing a one-match European ban after scolding a referee's assistant for taking too long to allow defender Neven Subotic to return to the pitch in a Champions League game in charge of Borussia Dortmund.

"It was really pathetic of me," Klopp admitted then, having subsided from his teeth-baring self and reflected on the evidence which included volcanic imagery where the official looked as doomed as a Pompeii resident staring into a mouth of lava.

That experience would end with Klopp watching the rest of Dortmund's 2-1 defeat in front of a monitor with the groundsman in his room accompanied by a shirt of Diego Maradona hanging on the wall.

A more sanguine Klopp spoke of the emotional challenge his current team faces in the warm claustrophobic fug of the press hall last night having been told of some warmhearted comments made by Carlo Ancelotti earlier where the Italian spoke about how his Liverpool have moved up a couple of levels under the guidance of a manager who beat him to a job in 2015.

"In Germany, we would say Carlo is a smart fox," Klopp grinned. "It's nice that he says a lot of things about me and us, but it's tactics. He wants to bring the nice fella out of me but we are here for the battle."

Emotional

It seemed that Klopp was trying to neither dismiss what awaits him nor ignite the possibilities. "It's what we want," he said diplomatically before reminding Liverpool are used to performing in atmospheres like this, "go to Burnley on January 1 on a rainy afternoon and that is emotional."

Klopp usually prefers to focus on the collective capabilities of his own players. A lot has been made of Mo Salah's season so far but it was fair of Klopp to promote the idea that he could have scored three times at Chelsea on Saturday with better finishing.

"He was in the positions," reasoned Klopp. "If you play tennis and your forehand is good and the next day your forehand is not there you think 'What is it?' That's how sport works. It is about your confidence. His game is really good."

Georginio Wijnaldum would provide more insight into Salah's mentality. Rather than sympathise with the Egyptian, the midfielder demanded more - though it must be emphasised the following discussion happened through the prism of a friendship.

"I've told him that he's got to get more hat-tricks," Wijnaldum smiled. "He's had enough of scoring twos, he has to get three…last year there was only one! He said that I was right! I told him, 'Mo, you are a top player; if you look at Messi and Ronaldo, they score a lot of hat-tricks - you have to do the same if you want to compete with them'.

"…if someone can deal with pressure, it is Mo," Wijnaldum continued. "Last season he had pressure when people were saying he had to be the top scorer of the league. We told him he couldn't let anyone catch him. When he was on 18 goals, he said, 'In my head, I can the 32'. Mo is not someone that is scared of pressure. He embraces the pressure."

Klopp expects a more defensive Napoli under Ancelotti than the one under Maurizio Sarri previously. They've started their Serie A campaign well and lie in second.

There's one glaring parallel with Liverpool because it is now 29 years since a domestic title was last secured and having had several near-misses across the past decade - often losing out to Juventus - there is a feeling that Ancelotti is here to put the final touches to a team filled with potential rather than build something new, so he'll need to find a way to restore momentum after losing 3-1 at Juventus on Saturday.

Napoli were keen to sign Alisson in the summer but the goalkeeper went to Liverpool, much to the frustration of owner Aurelio De Laurentiis, who then claimed that a deal was only brokered with Roma due to the links between Fenway Sports Group, Thomas DiBenedetto and James Pallotta. Alisson won on this ground with Roma last season and when asked recount his memories from that victory, his mind waltzed between the burn of the atmosphere and the chill of statistics.

"We'll definitely find really passionate fans," he said. "They had 24 attempts on goal, 13 on target and I made 11 saves and conceded two goals." Roma would score four that night. For Liverpool to do that, they will probably need Salah to start firing. (© Independent News Service)

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