Lacklustre Liverpool unlocked by Lorenzo Insigne's late strike
Chris Bascombe, at Stadio San Paolo Rob Bagchi, Live updates
3 October 2018 • 10:25pm
Liverpool’s front three brought tornados to the continent a year ago. In Naples they were sedated.
Carlo Ancelotti, described by Jurgen Klopp as ‘a smart fox’ prior to the Italians’ victory, lived up to his portrayal by proving the great pacifier of Mohamed Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane. Liverpool’s feared trio spent more time chasing than combining. For the esteemed coach – once interviewed for the Anfield job when Klopp was preferred – this was a tactical triumph.
Perhaps more extraordinary than Napoli inflicting the first group game defeat of Klopp’s Anfield reign was Liverpool’s failure to have a shot on goal. Klopp admitted his team was unrecognisable.
“No attempt on target? I don’t remember when that happened last,” said Klopp.
For reference, in the Champions League it was February 2006.
“I am happy to credit Napoli, but we played a big part of that too," Klopp added. "We can play a lot better. Napoli made a good game, we didn’t. They deserved the three points.”
To the help and hindrance of Liverpool, Group C is specialising in last minute winners. After Firmino’s triumph against Paris St Germain, Lorenzo Insigne condemned Liverpool.
It was late coming but no surprise. Substitute Dries Mertens had twice gone close, including a header off the crossbar. Until the latter stages Liverpool were well protected at the back in an unattractive, scruffy game. Then Jose Callejon found space on the Liverpool left and his cross found Insigne to slide in and trigger 90th-minute firecrackers.
Ancelotti must take credit for gambling with a double substitution in the closing stages – a catalyst for a more open finale. Certainly the Italians’ need was greater having drawn their first game with Red Star Belgrade, but it felt like an occasion where the match followed a word-perfect managerial script – first nullifying the opponent and then striking.
Klopp sounded a tad bewildered by his side’s underperformance.
“The second half was not good enough. It is a bad sign when you have to say your goalkeeper is the best player,” Klopp admitted.
“I have to accept that a big part of the performance is my fault. I need a night to look at it, but it did not look how it should have looked.
“I am not shocked. Napoli played how they played and we did not help. You don’t want games like this but it has happened to me a few times. The boys wanted it but you need to do the right things in the right moment. It feels average to lose.”
It is certainly rare to see Liverpool so anaesthetised. The mild early season criticism is Liverpool have conceded flamboyance to evolve more solidity. Those fifteen-minute attacking blitzes so often leading to two or three goals have been conspicuously absent, the finest Liverpool displays offering impressively efficient rather than showy football.
Klopp is aware of that, even if his pre-match observation was about it only being a matter of time before ‘everything clicked’. His inclusion of Naby Keita for Jordan Henderson must have been intended to hasten that process, adding more midfield craft.
That never worked. After an inauspicious 16 minutes during which Keita gave the ball away often and almost gifted an opening goal to Insigne – the Napoli striker firing wide - the Guinea man had to be carried out the stadium and taken to a nearby hospital with what looked a worrying injury. Klopp confirmed it was a back issue, the seriousness of which to be determined. Liverpool fly home on Thursday.
Henderson, initially rested for Sunday’s visit of Manchester City, was summoned.
What followed was an inability to link Liverpool’s midfield and attack - although it must be said the pitch did not help.
There can be few renowned clubs with a stadium like that of Napoli. It feels like an ancient ruin more than sports arena – a venue where you might expect Tony Robinson and his ‘Time Team’ archaeologists. Such were the patches on the turf it looked like the diggers had been let loose as a cunning tactical ploy to prevent Liverpool combining with fluidity. So often the intended route of a pass was diverted beyond reach. In fairnes, it was not used as an excuse.
So developed an evening where the newly-formed reliability in defence was tested.
Alisson was the busier keeper throughout denying Arkadiusz Milik and Insigne. Alexander-Arnold’s last-ditch tackle also denied Ruiz a clear sight at Liverpool’s number one, while Gomez cleared a Mertens shot off the line.
Then Insigne struck. Ancelotti could take pride in not only appeasing Klopp’s attack, but penetrating a defence in which Van Dijk and Gomez had previously stood firm.
Now Liverpool are fighting to get out of the group, although the final game being at Anfield – against Napoli – means the odds remain in Klopp’s favour assuming enough points are collected between now and then.
Klopp's final words as he departed were, ‘See you all in Liverpool’.
After this less than salubrious welcome, his players will hope home comforts ensure the usual flares in The Kop on European nights are reacquainted with flair in the final third.
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