Neapolitan stalemate offers some respite

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June 21, 2010 - Nyon, SWITZERLAND - epa02214375 The Europa League trophy is shown, prior the drawing of the games for the Europa League 2010/11 First qualifying round, at the UEFA Headquarters in Nyon, Switzerland, Monday, June 21, 2010. (KEYSTONE/Salvatore Di Nolfi.

Under usual circumstances a point away from home in European competition and a solid defensive performance would be greeted, perhaps not with elation, but with satisfactory approval.

The current predicament, however, can hardly be considered business-as-usual in the history of Liverpool Football Club. So, Roy Hodgson’s decision to play a considerably weakened side for the Europa League group tie against Napoli in the Stadio San Paolo – at a time when winning any game is important for both the club and Hodgson – may well have been met with some dismay, if hardly unexpected.

Under the circumstances, this 0-0 draw can be considered a commendable result, in what was perhaps, on paper, the toughest fixture of the group stage. Seven changes were made from the miserable defeat to Everton. The likes of Steven Gerrard, Fernando Torres and Raul Meireles didn’t even make the trip. This was a limited Liverpool second string against the first choice eleven of one of the in-form teams in Serie A.

Add to that the feisty atmosphere, which welcomed what was considered Napoli’s biggest continental encounter for a couple of years, and a few young, inexperienced players. And there is no doubt that there our some positives to take from this mid-week sojourn to Italy.

There is no doubt that Walter Mazzarri’s Napoli were taking this one seriously. The strong starting line-up and sense of anticipation amongst the large crowd present confirmed that.

Yet a defiant defensive performance from a make-shift Liverpool XI limited the genuine potential attacking threat of their opponents to a minimum.

It was a match of few genuine chances. Something which you can be sure will have been part of Hodgson’s strategy from the outset. Paul Konchesky cleared off his own goal line in the dying seconds of the first half and Konchesky also got a vital block on Edison Cavani’s second half strike, which was saved by Pepe Reina. Whilst the Reds best chance fell to Ryan Babel; his shot saved by Morgan De Sanctis when the Dutchman should probably have scored.

The first half in particular was devoid of goalmouth action. Both sides approach was typically cautious and continental in style. Yet this seemed to suit Liverpool. Given more time to play and pressed far less than in a typical Premier League match, the Reds actually played more expansive football in the opening half than was to have been expected.

There is no doubting the talent which Napoli possess in the final third. The attacking prowess of both Cavani and Marek Hamsik was evident whilst playing for their respective countries at the recent World Cup in South Africa. Whilst Ezequiel Lavezzi has international experience with Argentina.

The home sides best attacking outlet seemed to be down the flanks. But the Italian’s did little to trouble Jamie Carragher and Martin Skrtel early on. Lavezzi looked lively and a potential threat throughout. Although Reina was virtually unemployed before Konchesky’s goal line clearance moments before the break.

Cavani caused some panic in the Reds box and crossed for Hamsik, who turned a shot towards goal, which was hacked off the line in the knick of time by the left-back.

A half-time deficit would have been harsh on Liverpool as it was. The Reds had passed the ball around well in the middle of the pitch. Jay Spearing – now a regular starter in Europe – was assured in midfield and involved in much of the good things Liverpool did. Spearing can perhaps consider himself unfortunate not to have played more football this season, considering the standard on show in that position in previous games.

Alongside him Christian Poulsen delivered his most composed performance to date; the Dane clearly relishing the continental nature of the game. Whilst, ahead of them, full-debutant Jonjo Shelvey was the stand-out performer in the first half. The teenager was confident on the ball and showed some good touches, relishing the free role behind the striker.

What Hodgson’s side lacked once again was cutting edge in the final third. Some of the more senior attacking players on show offered little to compliment the good work behind them. Babel was especially culpable to wasting possession in advanced areas.

This lack of quality up front was best illustrated late in the opening period, when Shelvey delivered a couple of fantastic balls into the Napoli area, which were met with nothing.

The signs from the first half should have encouraged Liverpool that a significant three points were there for the taking. Yet in the second half the Reds were to keen to revert to the deep, defensive football which has characterised their season thus far.

Napoli began the half much livelier. Cavani was found in a good position and, as an opportunity opened up for the Uruguayan, Konchesky did just enough to and Reina saved the shot relatively comfortably. And the same player flashed a header just wide soon after.

Although Napoli failed to capitalise on any momentum as the half progressed. And it was Liverpool who threatened most in the latter stages, as a noticeable vulnerable home defence looked capable of conceding the decisive goal.

The best chance fell to Babel. Some wasteful defending presented the ball to Milan Jovanovic and, as he ran at the Neapolitian’s, gaps appeared in the defence. Jovanovic played Babel through one-on-one with the ‘keeper. De Sanctis saved well but Babel probably should have found the corner of the net.

A further opportunity to steal the points fell to David N’Gog – much improved after the break – soon after. The striker did well to work an opportunity in the opposition box, swivelled and shot, a crucial block from Salvatore Aronica denying a winner. And honours finished even in Naples, Keeping the Reds top of the group at the midway point.

The facts are that this is the latest in, a previously unthinkable, run of seven games without a win and another goalless 90 minutes of football. At the moment, though, Liverpool must cling on to any positives they can muster. And this was a solid defensive display from depleted Liverpool side, due to injuries and players rested. Players who have been rested for more critical battles which lie ahead if Hodgson is to salvage a Liverpool career on the brink.

Man of the Match

JAY SPEARING
Tidy and assured in midfield. The small, combative midfielder has generally been delivering improved performances this term. Christian Poulsen was also much improved alongside Spearing in the centre. And Shelvey deserves a mention for his first half efforts.

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