“Don’t you worry, if you lose in Naples, then you end up winning the Champions League!”, said Carlo Ancelotti to Jurgen Klopp after his side had beaten Liverpool in a game that could have gone either way. The reigning European Champions had traveled to Naples to begin their 2019-20 European campaign. It is fair to say that their defense did not begin on a great note. For the first 80 minutes it was difficult to point to a team in clear ascendancy. But, after the referee awarded a penalty to Callejon for tripping on Andy Robertson’s leg, and after Dries Mertens scored from the spot, it was difficult for Liverpool to get back into the game.
1st Half: Liverpool Stand Up Well to Napoli’s Challenge
As the first half drew to a close, the TV commentators called it an “evenly contested” 45 minutes. And indeed, it was a fairly even contest at that point in time. Early in the half, Fabian Ruiz tested Adrian a stinging shot from just outside the Liverpool box. Following Adrian’s excellent save, the ball fell again to Ruiz, who quickly took another shot on target. This time too, Adrian, who was still recovering back up managed to block the shot, which allowed Lozano to poke in the rebound, but he was offside. Napoli followed up with two more efforts on goal, but both were off target.
Liverpool took more shots in the first half – 9 to Napoli’s 5, but they too had only two shots on target. Liverpool’s attacking threat was on show when Henderson’s switch ball put Mane through to the goal in the 21st minute with Salah lurking on his right. However, Meret was able to save the low left-footed shot from Mane. This was quickly followed by a Milner shot from just outside the box but the veteran player hit his shot too high. In the 28th minute, Firmino shot from outside the box but it was saved by Meret. Firmino also found himself unmarked while receiving a Milner cross but his header was slightly outside of the far post.
In terms of stats, the two sides were pretty much even, with Liverpool completing 235 passes to Napoli’s 252 and the Reds completing 60 attacking third passes to Napoli’s 46. Liverpool were leading 22-7 in tackles, while Napoli were leading 14-6 in crosses. Some of those Napoli crosses did cause trouble for Liverpool but the defense was up to the task.
2nd Half: Focused Napoli Get the Better Out of Liverpool
Immediately after the restart, in the 49th minute, Mertens shot from within the six-yard box from a cross from Rui, but Adrian made a save that made one wonder if he was Alisson in disguise. After this shot, Napoli did not have a single shot till the 82nd minute. They were focused more on making sure that the visitors got awarded more than their fair share of fouls and yellow cards.
In the 65th minute, Salah could not capitalize on a mistake from Manolas as his left footed low shot from inside the box was saved by Meret. Then in the 74th minute, Firmino fed Mane the ball at his feet inside the box but Mane’s low shot from almost the same position as Salah was too weak and Meret did not have any problems in saving it.
After this, Liverpool’s intensity declined a bit, leading to a Napoli attack when Callejon made the most of Andy Robertson’s late tackle inside the Liverpool penalty box to earn his team a penalty. Adrian, keeping up with his good form, almost saved the Dries Mertens penalty to his right. But the ball snuck in underneath the Spaniard’s arm to give Napoli their first goal. This led to a distinct reduction in intensity from Liverpool, which was evident when in the stoppage time, a tired Van Djik back pass led to confusion between Robertson and Adrian and the substitute Llorente made the most of it by shooting it past a hapless Adrian, grabbing an unsurmountable lead for the hosts.
Looking at Liverpool’s prominent attacking statistics, it would seem that the Reds were unlucky not to be a goal or two ahead even before the penalty incident. Reds had more attacking third passes – 163 (119 successful) in total, compared to 89 (65 successful) for Napoli. Firmino, Henderson, and Mane created 10 chances among themselves, while for Napoli Insigne and Mertens created 2 each. Liverpool took a total of 13 shots, with 4 on target but did not convert any of those, while Napoli just took 10 shots, with 5 on target and 2 goals as a result.
One of the key characteristics of Liverpool’s game was their backward passing. Liverpool had a lot of possession in the final third but a lot of that possession was retained through backward passes back to the defence. Napoli’s tight defence did not allow them to pass through the middle and they were reluctant to cross (14 crosses, 4 successful). This is the reason why Liverpool’s possession was high, their territory dominance was also high but their final key passing and shooting was not as effective as is expected from Liverpool.
In defence, the difference between the two sides was the form of Virgil van Djik and Koulibaly. Since VVD joined the Reds, they have been dominant in the air defensively. However, against Napoli, they won only 6 aerial duels out of 10, while between Koulibaly and Manolas the Italians won 8 out of 11 aerials defensively. Liverpool committed one error leading to goal – VVD’s backpass for Llorente’s goal, while Napoli had zero errors leading to a goal. Manolas’ miscued clearance fell to Salah but the Egyptian’s shot was saved by Meret. Napoli had more clearances (21-15), blocks (4-3), and interceptions (12-9), compared to Liverpool.
A Loss Good Omen for Liverpool?
A loss in the first game of the group stage does not generally bode well for a team, especially if they are the defending champions. However, given the group composition (Red Bull Salzburg and Genk being the other sides), one can assume that both Napoli and Liverpool will still make it to the knockout stages. Although Salzburg’s dominant display against Genk at home might have put some doubts in the minds of Liverpool fans, it would be fair to assume that Liverpool can get 10-12 points from the rest of the five group games. This loss could also bring Liverpool back to the ground after their soaring unbeaten start in the Premier League. Such a result might be helpful in tough fixtures that await the Reds in coming weeks, starting with Chelsea on Sunday.
Perhaps Carlo Ancelotti was not serious when he suggested that Liverpool could win the Champions League because they had again lost at San Stadio Paulo. But last season Liverpool lost 1-0 and won the Champions League. This season, they lost 2-0. Could it mean that they will win a UCL and PL double? You never know.