The UEFA Champions League 2019-20 begins this week, with the Champions Liverpool visiting Napoli for their first group stage match. The Reds and the Partenopei are familiar foes from last season but they are grouped with an easier set of teams – Red Bull Salzburg and Genk, as compared to Paris St Germain and Red Star Belgrade. Last time, despite losing 1-0 in Naples (and in Paris and Belgrade), the Reds progressed. This time, progress to the last sixteen looks more achievable for both Liverpool and Napoli.
Napoli come into this game having beaten Sampdoria by a 2-0 scoreline on Saturday afternoon. Their Serie A campaign started with a win against Fiorentina, followed by an unfortunate loss to Juventus – losing in stoppage time due to an unfortunate Koulibaly own-goal. After Saturday’s game, Napoli sit sixth in the Serie A table with six points. But for Carlo Ancelotti, Serie A form would matter little, as he would want to pip Liverpool to the top of the group this season, which would be some measure of revenge after being dumped out of Champions League by the Reds last season. He will set up his side to ensure a repeat of the same fixture from last season, when Napoli did not allow Liverpool to take a single shot on target.
In their first five fixtures in the Premier League, Liverpool have met a couple of sides that set up to keep them from shooting. The latest being Newcastle United on Saturday. Even after going 1-0 down in the 7th minute, the Reds stormed back into the game, winning comfortably (3-1) in the end. Liverpool sit at the top of the table in the Premier League, having won 5 out of 5 and are clear of Manchester City by 5 points. But for Jurgen Klopp too, the domestic league form will not matter, as he will focus on winning the group. To win the group, it is important for Klopp to win away at Napoli as fixtures against Salzburg and Genk should be far easier.
- This will be the fifth meeting between Napoli and Liverpool in European competition, them having met earlier in the 2010-11 Europa League group stage and again in last season’s Champions League group stage.
- Last season Napoli defeated Liverpool 1-0 at Stadio San Paolo as the Reds could not find an answer to a Lorenzo Insigne goal in 90th In fact, Liverpool did not have a single shot on target in that defeat in Italy. This has happened only once in 74 Champions League games for the Reds.
- Of course, it does not mean that Napoli have a hold over Liverpool or over English teams. That victory at home was their only win in last six meetings with English teams.
- Their haywire shooting in this fixture last season was not representative of Liverpool’s goal scoring prowess. Over the last two Champions League campaigns, Liverpool have scored more goals (65) and won more games (15) than any other side in the competition.
- The reigning UCL champion have not lost their opening UCL game the following season, since AC Milan lost to Ajax in 1994-1995 (W14 D10 since).
Of the 55 goals that Napoli have scored in Champions League, 10 have been scored by Dries Mertens. Mertens is already leading the goalscoring charts for the Partenopei in Serie A, having scored 3 in 3 games. The difference between his xG (0.73) and his total goals (3), indicates the skill he exhibits in converting low-probability chances. He takes 4.53 shots per 90 minutes and has an xG of 0.26 per 90 minutes, again different than Liverpool’s clinical finishers like Sadio Mane and Mohammed Salah.
Since the start of 2017-18, Roberto Firmino has been involved in 22 goals in 25 UCL games (14 goals and 8 assists) for Liverpool, more than any other layer for the club in this period. As it has been pointed out, Firmino seems to have the license to shoot more (4.20 shots per 90 minutes in the Premier League). His xG90 of 0.50 and xA90 of 0.40 mean that he has a very good chance of increasing that tally of goal involvements in UCL on Tuesday night.
For Napoli, the only injury concern is that of Arkadiusz Milik. But between Mertens, Lozano and Llorente, they have enough in-form forwards to cover for the Pole. Carlo Ancelotti sent out a strong team against Sampdoria but more or less the same lineup will start against Liverpool barring the likely switch of Insigne in to the starting XI. The likely lineup for the Partenopei – Meret; Lorenzo, Rui, Koulibaly, Maksimovic; Callejon, Ruiz, Insigne, Zieliński; Mertens, Lozano
For Jurgen Klopp, there was an addition to the injury list with Origi limping off in the first half against Newcastle. But given that Origi had started to give some rest to Firmino, his absence will not cause a lot of worries. Rather, it will be squad opportunity for Rhian Brewster, who was subbed out after playing 20 minutes for Liverpool U23s against Derby County U23s on Saturday. In other changes, Klopp could bring Henderson back into the midfield in a switch with Oxlade-Chamberlain. The likely lineup for Liverpool could be – Adrian; Trent Alexander Arnold, Matip, van Dijk, Robertson; Fabinho, Wijnaldum, Henderson; Mane, Firmino, Salah.
Given how difficult it is for a visiting team to score against Napoli, and given Liverpool’s defence, we can assume that it will be a low-scoring affair. Liverpool’s attacking flair will give them some opportunities, but I do not expect them to return home with three points in the bag. They will be happy to return with a draw.
Napoli 1 – 1 Liverpool