Liverpool sick of Napoli but recent history suggests Jurgen Klopp has no need to panic
Paul Gorst watched as Liverpool lost their opening Champions League group game in Napoli
ByPaul Gorst Liverpool FC correspondent
12:26, 18 SEP 2019
It's been a long time since Liverpool have felt this kind of gut-wrenching sucker punch.
For the first time since May 1, the Champions League holders slipped to defeat in what is another distinctly dispiriting chapter of a miserable story at Stadio San Paolo for the Reds.
Jordan Henderson, Trent Alexander-Arnold and Virgil van Dijk had all talked up how Liverpool - the reigning champions of Europe - were now viewed as a bigger scalp than usual on the continent, given their success at the Wanda Metropolitano on June 1.
And so it proved as an intense Napoli edged a game that, in truth, could have went either way and remained delicately suspended on a knife-edge until the final few minutes.
Liverpool's recent history with Napoli suggests success and failure is defined by the smallest margins and that once more proved to be the case as Jurgen Klopp's men went down thanks to a penalty decision that is likely to be the hot topic for the next few days.
The game started at some pace and the home side thought they had taken the lead when Hirving Lozano nodded in after a double save from Adrian. However, the Mexican winger was correctly flagged offside.
Liverpool seemed to be keen to exploit Mohamed Salah's pace on the counter against Mario Rui, with Jordan Henderson pinging passes out to the right-hand side for his team-mate to dart on to constantly in the first half.
Not a whole lot has changed in terms of the personnel Klopp brought to San Paolo nearly 12 months ago, but there was a bite that was sorely lacking in October 2018.
Liverpool, this time around, were also able to boast a fully acclimated Fabinho, who strode around midfield with so much purpose and intent to everything he did.
The Brazilian was still adjusting to the very specific demands of a Klopp midfield when the Reds came here last year. Now fully up to speed, the £40million man showcased his full range of qualities to stamp his mark on the engine room battle throughout.
If there's a better defensive midfielder in English football right now, he is being well hidden. The 25-year-old was outstanding and ensured a boisterous home support were limited to morsels of genuine excitement around the Liverpool goalmouth in the first half.
A crunching tackle on the halfway line and subsequent dribble eventually ended with Salah being fed, before the flawless Kalidou Koulibaly disrupted the Egyptian and cleared the danger.
Another perfectly weighted Fabinho pass was wrapped into Salah down the right as the Reds looked to take full advantage of the space afforded on the flank.
Napoli had their best chance of the game early in the second half when Rui's cross was met by Dries Mertens' volley. Fortunately, for the Reds, Adrian was there to palm it on to the roof of the net with an exceptional stop.
This fixture is best remembered for a truly world-class save from Alisson Becker at Anfield in December. It was enough to keep the slender 1-0 lead and see the Reds into the last 16 and Adrian's save was just as impressive here to keep it goalless.
Liverpool responded with a typical razor-sharp counter that strangely fell flat in the final furlong as Mane raced away with Salah on the other side. With plenty of time to play the pass, the Senegal star inexplicably overhit the through ball to send Salah too wide and bring the attack to a shuddering halt.
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If Virgil van Dijk, the Ballon d'Or favourite and PFA Players' Player of the Year, is currently the world's best centre-back then Koulibaly isn't 100 miles behind. Mane's national colleague again thwarted a good Liverpool attack by diving at the feet of Firmino to cut out a pass on the edge of the box near the hour mark.
The 28-year-old often excels against the Reds and he was once more in commanding form at the heart of the Partenopei backline here. Liverpool continued to huff and puff but found no real joy from a miserly Napoli defence who held firm as the Reds tried to cut their way through however way they could.
With the game inside the final 10 minutes, Napoli were handed a golden opportunity to take the lead when Jose Callejon went down cheaply under Robertson's challenge. VAR would not come to Liverpool's rescue before Mertens dispatched the spot-kick.
Quite why VAR did not overrule the softest of spot-kick decisions from Felix Brych is anyone’s guess. Liverpool might rightly feel aggrieved by the call that enabled Mertens to open the scoring.
Van Dijk then threw in the most uncharacteristic of mistakes in the dying embers to give substitute Fernando Llorente an easy finish to send Liverpool home with nothing to show for what was an otherwise creditable performance.
Long term, it is no disaster for their hopes of retaining the biggest trophy in club football, but Liverpool will, plainly, be sick to the back teeth of Carlo Ancelotti's Neapolitans.
Red Salzburg's 6-2 hammering of Genk means Liverpool are now playing catch up in Group E, but there will no be soul-searching to be done after this.
The post-match inquests won’t cut deep. Liverpool matched their hosts for the majority of the game.
Defeat at this venue last year proved to be nothing more than a bump on the road to greatness for Klopp's charges, and while this result means Liverpool are yet to put a foot on that same path, this time around, there will be no panic just yet.
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