When the Champions League draw was made, Group C was called the group of death as the draw had pitted the title challengers in England and Italy versus the champions of France. After the first game week of Champions League, it does not seem that dreary, at least for Liverpool. After beating Paris Saint Germain at home, the Reds travel to Naples this Wednesday night to try and wrest a great lead in the group.
But facing Napoli at Stadio San Paolo is never a great an easy task. Carlo Ancelotti’s team are again lining up to be the prime challengers for the Serie A title, sitting second, six points behind Juventus, having played seven games. An attack led by Lorenzo Insigne, Arkadiusz Milik, and Dries Mertens has scored 13 goals but the team has also allowed 10 goals to their opponents. Napoli failed to capitalise on the easy start in Champions League they got against Red Star Belgrade (away) and returned from Belgrade with a 0-0 draw. This is a group that is expected to have very fine margins between teams making it to last 16 and teams missing out and Napoli would love to go top of the group on Wednesday night.
When the Champions League draw was made in September, everyone was scared about Liverpool’s fixture list in rest of September in early October. Not only did they have to face Tottenham Hotspur, Chelsea and Manchester City in the league, they also had to take on PSG and Napoli in the Champions League. Now, three of those five high-stake games are over and Liverpool are still unbeaten in both Champions League and the Premier League. Despite the Reds scoring 19 goals in all competitions in 9 games, fans and media consider it to be a meek start for Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane, and Roberto Firmino. The clear improvement has been in defense as Virgil van Djik and Alisson have marshalled the defence well, ensuring four clean sheets and have allowed just 7 goals through so far. Liverpool’s victory over PSG in the first game week gives them a good chance of wresting control of the group. If they win on Wednesday, they will retain their lead at the top of the group, while Napoli will fall back in the race to qualify for the last 16.
- This will only be the third time that Napoli and Liverpool face each other in European competition. The only previous tie when they faced each other was in the group stages of 2010/11 Europa League. Liverpool won that tie with an aggregate of 3-1 at Anfield with Steven Gerrard scoring a hat-trick. The Naples leg had finished 0-0 earlier in the season.
- Napoli have won only twice in their last nine Champions League games (W2 D1 L6), both those wins coming at home for them. But Liverpool lost only one of their six away games last season.
- Carlo Ancelotti has never lost to Liverpool in Champions League (W3 D1), that draw being the most famous of all – the 2005 Champions League final. In his only tie with Jurgen Klopp, his Real Madrid got the better of Klopp’s Borussia Dortmund in the 2013/14 quarter-finals.
- Liverpool scored 20 goals in away games in the Champions League last season, which is a joint record with the aforementioned Real Madrid of 2013/14.
Dries Mertens has contributed to nine goals out of Napoli’s last 14 Champions League goals, scoring six and assisting three. Although Sarri’s move to Chelsea has caused Mertens certain problems, he has the capability to overcome them. His xG90 is 0.62 and xA90 is 0.36, i.e. he is expected to score or assist 0.98 goals in any 90-minute appearance. He opened the scoring against Juventus on the weekend but was subbed out by Ancelotti after 61 minutes.
When Daniel Sturridge went out on loan to West Brom last season, no one would have predicted that the Englishman would come back to Liverpool and possibly become Klopp’s first choice striker at least for the mid-week games. But that is exactly what he has become. He has scored mid-week goals against PSG and Chelsea and he was the one who gave Liverpool their highly unlikely draw at Stamford Bridge on Saturday evening. His xG90 numbers for the league are crazy as he has scored 2 league goals in only 19 minutes of league game play. However, he was outstanding in his Champions League appearance against PSG and against Chelsea in the League Cup. It would be a surprise if Klopp does not give Sturridge another mid-week start.
For Napoli, Marco Rui is available despite being shown a red card against Juventus in Serie A. The attack can consist of Mertens and Insigne, although Milik will provide another option. In the midfield, Marek Hamsik, Fabian Ruiz and Amadou Diawara are competing for one starting spot alongside Allan. Vlad Chiriches and Amin Younes continue to remain injured.
For Liverpool, Naby Keita could return to the midfield after the draw at Stamford Bridge. Klopp is likely to start with Sturridge, most likely in place of Firmino, although it could also be in place of the out-of-form Mohamed Salah. Adam Lallana, Alex Oxlade Chamberlain and Divock Origi continue to present Klopp with injury concerns.
The last time Liverpool played in Stadio Sao Paolo, they returned home with a 0-0 draw. But this Liverpool side is difficult to contain, especially in Europe. Napoli will not make it easy but Liverpool should have the quality to overcome Napoli’s defences on Wednesday.
Napoli 1 – 2 Liverpool