Liverpool began the defence of their Champions League title with a disappointing defeat at Napoli, 2-0 the scoreline after two late goals.
Napoli 2-0 Liverpool
Champions League, Stadio San Paolo
September 17, 2019
Goals: Mertens pen 81′, Llorente 90+1′
Misfiring Front Three
It has often been the case that Liverpool’s front three have been the big asset, the game-changing variable for turning draws into wins.
On a warm evening in Naples, however, the holy trinity of Sadio Mane, Roberto Firmino and Mohamed Salah simply couldn’t get their game together for large stretches, often individually and certainly when trying to play in tandem.
For Firmino it was a particularly poor evening, with the gap between his weekend display and this one a similar drop-off to that seen when Divock Origi starts instead of the mercurial Brazilian.
Origi’s absence poses its own set of questions, meanwhile; Rhian Brewster has thus far been denied a long runout with the under-23s, subbed off when news of Origi’s demise filtered through, and a UEFA Youth League outing.
Instead, he’s boarded a flight and undertaken another training session or two, and wasn’t even on the bench here.
Salah was probably the best of the bunch, going close on two occasions, while Mane’s endeavour was non-stop, but his final ball dreadfully lacking.
The strikers can’t always be the difference, and once more there was little evidence that anybody else was going to do so.
Lesser-Hailed Defensive Stalwarts
Often the centre-backs get the plaudits for Liverpool, whether it’s Van Dijk’s limitless leadership, Gomez’s emergence or Matip’s consistency.
This time, therefore, we’ll herald two others: Trent Alexander-Arnold and Adrian, both of whom made key interventions.
In the first half, the young right-back made two particularly excellent interceptions, vital ones inside the penalty box which owed as much to his alertness and concentration as to his turn of pace.
Covering across from his side of the area, Trent swept up dangerous balls into the area, the second occasion beating two men to win a free-kick and relieving the pressure on the Reds’ defence.
More spectacularly, goalkeeper Adrian came to the rescue with an absolutely cracking second-half save.
Dries Mertens has been in great form this season, but his close-range aerial finish was brilliantly clawed away by the Spanish stopper, showing good wrist strength as well as anticipation and desire.
Nothing whatsoever he could do about Napoli’s goals, and was unfortunate to not save the spot-kick.
Cast our minds back 11 and 12 months and it was a familiar feeling in away European matches: poor results, lacklustre in attack.
The performance here was, for 80 minutes, certainly better than we saw at Napoli or Red Star Belgrade in 2018/19. The passing was good in the middle third for stretches, the crowd was quietened in spells.
But it’s still another away defeat in Europe, a fourth away loss in group games.
A response will be demanded in the next two away games, but before that, a victory at home to Salzburg is a must in the next Champions League match.
Three from three at home will, once again, be vital.
Fabinho, the Dominant Force
From the first whistle, we once again saw an exemplary display in midfield control from Fabinho.
Liverpool’s No. 3 was incessant with his chasing the ball down, making tackles and cleverly switching play in a different direction, keeping the Napoli centre chasing.
It’s as well he was so impressive, because he got less and less help as the match went on—Henderson started well but faded badly, while Milner was simply run ragged, unable to stop the quick passing in the home team and rarely close enough to make a good challenge.
Fabinho‘s manipulation of the ball was probably among the Reds’ contingent, certainly in terms of frequency and accuracy and, in a more subjective setting, in terms of intelligence.
Needs more help. Gini Wijnaldum, perhaps, was missed.
Poor Start, but Onward and Upward
After Andy Robertson almost missed the game through a minor knock, and then proceeded to put in a quiet—and ultimately telling, in a negative sense—performance, there must be a question over whether he’s ready to go again against Chelsea at the weekend.
They also lost on Tuesday night, but are bright and enterprising in attack on home soil—we can’t be carrying passengers and still expect to continue our 100 percent record.
Worryingly, there’s nobody to specifically fill the void in Robertson’s style, so a change in approach might well be on the cards at Stamford Bridge.
In the longer term, Salzburg’s rout of Genk sets up the group hierarchy and will raise expectations and optimism when they come to Anfield next, so there’s no room for another poor showing.
Don’t be too down about this defeat; Liverpool played the game more or less right, just got the ending wrong this time.
We had to lose at some point this season, and it’s as well being the first group game when we should easily go through, as a Premier League game which could cost us dearly in the title race.
Straight back at it this weekend, with our shooting boots on this time!