The last time Liverpool beat Napoli at home in a group game of a European competition to ensure progress into the knockout rounds, it was the fourth matchday of the 2010-11 Europa League and a certain Steven Gerrard rose to the occasion, scoring a brilliant hat-trick and making sure that Liverpool were unsurpassable in the group. The Reds won the game 3 goals to 1 – a scoreline they will love to have on Tuesday when Carlo Ancelotti’s men come to Anfield to lay their claim to a last sixteen spot in the Champions League. A 3-1 win or any other win with a two-goal margin (or even a 1-0 win) will take Liverpool into the knock-outs, and in all probabilities, any other result will dump them into the Round of 32 of the Europa League. The same fate, most likely (Red Star Belgrade are unlikely to beat or draw PSG), awaits Napoli if they lose the game by a two-goal margin.
Liverpool have managed to dig this hole for themselves by losing all three away games in the group, which mandates them to win the last home game with stringent score requirements. But they can certainly win the game by the required goal margin, especially after the recent results in the Premier League have put them at the top of the league table, still unbeaten in the domestic league. They emphatically destroyed Bournemouth on Saturday, with the help of a brilliant hat-trick from Salah. With that performance, Mohamed Salah has put the “one-season-wonder” tag to rest for some time at least. If his hattrick is a sign of things to come, then Napoli are in for a tough time. Others in the attack – Firmino, Mane, and even Sturridge and Origi are showing signs of revival, which would make it unlikely that Klopp will target a 1-0 win. A bit more worrisome is the defence as Liverpool’s successful pair of Joe Gomez and Virgil van Dijk was broken up by injury to the former in the game against Burnley on Wednesday night. In midfield, the desired players – Fabinho and Gini – are overworked and the fresh Adam Lallana received a head wound in the game against Bournemouth. Although, this might be the game in which Naby Keita shows the class that Liverpool saw in him. Overall, Klopp has to prepare his team for a tough week, which entails two very tough games (first a knockout against Napoli and then a derby against Manchester United), against very miserly opponent managers, and his side is not in the best of shape.
Napoli have fewer domestic worries. They are second in Serie A, with eight points fewer than the leaders Juventus and six points clear of Inter in the third. That domestic position allows Napoli to throw their full weight in a game of this magnitude. They, like their hosts, do not have an exemplary record of progressing to the knockout rounds in Champions League in recent years. But, they have not had the three-time winner Carlo Ancelotti as their manager also in any of those years. An attack led by Dries Mertens and Lorenzo Insigne is firing fairly regularly in both domestic as well as European games, while a midfield led by Marek Hamsik and Jose Callejon has proven tough to bypass. After Liverpool failed to ensure progress by losing to PSG in the penultimate matchday, Carlo Ancelotti had fired a few shots, claiming that Atalanta (their next game at the time), was tougher than a European game at Anfield. He, of course, knows better – as so many others can vouch for.
- This will be the fourth competitive meeting between Liverpool and Napoli, with both recording one win apiece and a draw.
- The Reds are unbeaten in 18 successive European matches at Anfield (W13 D5), last losing at home in October 2014 against Real Madrid. On the other hand, Napoli have not won any of their last six Champions League away matches (D2 L4), with their last victory on the road in this competition coming in Lisbon against Benfica in December 2016.
- Even without their fabulous attack, Liverpool have generally shown a lot of attacking intent. But, they did not manage a single shot on target in their game against Napoli on matchday two. It is the first time this happened since Feb 2006 (also against Benfica).
- If Napoli avoid defeat, they will have reached the knockout rounds for the third time in five Champions League campaigns including 2011-12 and 2016-17. If Liverpool manage to go through, they would have reached the knockouts twice in two years.
Sadio Mane was one of the only players who looked lively against PSG in the previous matchday. He again looked good against Everton but sustained an injury, so had to sit out of Burnley and then came on as a sub against Bournemouth. His relative silence in terms of goals and assists is one of the reasons that Liverpool’s attack feels feeble this season. He has scored one in Champions League and six in the Premier League. However, he has been more likely to score in Europe than in the Premier League – as shown by xG per game of 0.57 in Europe vs 0.42 in the Premier League. With Salah’s hattrick on Saturday, one of the key players in Liverpool attack is back to form. Perhaps, he can inspire his fellow winger and give that additional edge to Liverpool on Tuesday night.
Dries Mertens has been in a phenomenal goalscoring form for two seasons now. In the Serie A, he has scored 7 and assisted 4 goals in just 837 minutes, amounting to a goal or assist every 76 minutes. In the Champions League, he has scored thrice in 308 minutes, amounting to a goal every 102 minutes. With his two goals against Red Star Belgrade in matchday five, he has scored a total of 10 Champions League goals, the highest by a Belgian in the competition. He will be key to Ancelotti’s plan to take the game to Liverpool.
For Liverpool, there are several challenges due to injuries to key players. Joe Gomez joins Oxlade Chamberlain in the long-term injured list, while Dejan Lovren could not play on Saturday as he had suffered a concussion earlier. If Klopp goes with the more effective 4-2-3-1 formation, he is likely to keep Henderson and Fabinho in the defensive midfield, while Mane, Firmino and Shaqiri will form the advanced midfield. Trent, Matip, van Dijk, and Robertson are likely to form the defence, while Salah is likely to lead the line.
For Napoli, Raul Albiol is fit again and is called up by Ancelotti for the trip to Merseyside. Otherwise, Napoli should have a full-strength squad to pick the starting XI from.
Ancelotti might try to play mind games by claiming that Anfield’s atmosphere is nothing special or by announcing that Napoli will not park the bus. However, it is a well-known fact of European football that Anfield is one of the toughest arenas to visit in a knockout game. If there is anything Liverpool have shown this season, it is that they are pretty much infallible at home and that they can find ways to win in the toughest of conditions. It is likely that they will deliver once more.