Going to Naples as part of a Champions League campaign was never easy for Liverpool. Even at the height of their power, they lost there on a regular basis, usually in tight, difficult matches for both teams. On Wednesday, however, Napoli simply strolled through the contest, taking just over 45 minutes to score four times, courtesy of Piotr Zielinski (5′ penalty, 47′), Andre Zambo Anguissa (31′) and Giovani Simeone (44′), before the visitors finally gave some kind of an answer through Luis Diaz (49′). They even had the luxury of Victor Osimhen getting a penalty saved by Alisson Becker right after the one taken by Zielinski, without any consequences for his team.
There’s no real point in discussing the penalties. The first was given straight away and the second at a VAR intervention, and both calls were 100% correct, as were almost all of them in the game. Referee Carlos del Cerro and his assistants did a fine job from start to finish.
Napoli get it right
There’s been plenty of talk about Liverpool’s poor form recently, and rightly so, but to focus solely on that while reflecting on this match would be disrespectful to the quality of Napoli. The Italian side are no picnic for anyone to face as they remain undefeated this term.
There’s a lot of talent in that team, looking at each player in turn. Winger Khvicha Kvaratskelia and Osimhen obviously stand out and they showed the full array of their weapons against the Merseysiders, and the rest of the team are not far behind.
Nonetheless, the first thing that struck during the game was how organized they were. It was quite clear for everyone to see that they had studied the opposition closely and devised special ways to hurt them, and their effort paid dividends and then some.
Liverpool always play with a high defensive line. Their defenders have enough quality and experience, not to mention pace, to deal with any eventuality, and the setup heavily relies on them to do so. It usually keeps the opposition far away from Alisson’s goal and shortens the time needed to get the ball into dangerous areas at the other end.
But Napoli were ready for this. Almost every time they hurt the visitors, it was a result of the offside trap being easily broken through smart and rehearsed movement between Osimhen (and later Simeone) on one hand, and Kvaratskhelia, Zielinski and Matteo Politano on the other.
The striker would bide his time just behind the Liverpool back line, appearing ready to chase a pass in behind. And when the Liverpool back line stepped forward to create the offside position, he would simply stop in his tracks while one of the other three attacking players made a sudden dash for the ball. Liverpool’s midfield made practically no effort to prevent the pass from happening. Time and again the visitors failed to foresee this trick and paid the price heavily.
At the other end, Napoli’s defending was reasonably good. Not great though; had Liverpool been on top of their game they would’ve probably found ways to threaten Alex Meret far more often. But to deal with this Liverpool side, one completely off form, deprived of attacking ideas and midfield creativity for most of the game, it was more than enough.
All in all, Luciano Spaletti will have been thoroughly pleased with the way his men executed his tactical ideas throughout, as well as with the outcome of the match. The only worry with the games ahead in mind will be the injury which forced the head coach to replace Osimhen with Simeone in the 41st minute.
Liverpool lack midfield control
This match was obviously settled in the first half, and it was in this period that Jurgen Klopp’s midfield section completely failed to deliver. As their former defender Jamie Carragher pointed out, there was no protection for their back line. The passes that were supposed to send the forwards into chances were mostly done by the fullbacks who went narrow to execute them, and easily readable for the Napoli players who regularly intercepted them.
Harvey Elliott was probably the only member of the trio he formed with Fabinho and James Milner who did not embarrass himself, but always showed defensive responsibility as well as desire to make something happen in the opposition half. However, the 19-year-old is obviously too young to be the team’s main driving force in a match of this magnitude.
Things changed notably with the introduction of Thiago Alcantara instead of Milner after an hour, but Klopp is surely ruing that the Spaniard wasn’t yet ready for 90 minutes having only just recovered from a long injury.
Speaking of injuries, it should be said that Klopp couldn’t count on captain Jordan Henderson, Curtis Jones, Naby Keita or Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. Missing four players from the same section would ravage any team’s chances of winning a difficult football match.
Stars must step up
It’s in the human nature that in a time of crisis, we look to leaders for inspiration. At the moment, the two players that started this match for Liverpool as the indisputable stars of the team are Mohamed Salah and Virgil van Dijk. Both rightly regarded as world class, neither delivered a performance the rest of the team desperately needed from them at the Stadio
Diego Armando Maradona.
Fatigue seems to be hitting them hard. It looks as if the close runs in the Premier League and the Champions League last season have left their mark on these players, and their motivation appears questionable to say the least. Unfortunately for Klopp, there aren’t really players at his disposal who could challenge these two for their starting positions, so motivating them through competition doesn’t seem to be an option, at least not until January.
It may be that when Ibrahima Konate returns from his knee injury (which won’t be soon), the young France international pairs up with Joel Matip in some games, even important ones, to give Van Dijk some rest, but benching Salah is extremely difficult right now, no matter how poor his form is.
And his form is poor. Even his most faithful supporters surely realize that now, despite some numbers in his game, chances created for example, remaining characteristically high. There were moments in this match when you’d have expected Mo Salah of previous seasons to bury the ball into the back of the net. This Mo Salah, however, scuffed one shot and sent another tamely into the relaxed arms of Meret in the Napoli goal.
Further more, the Egyptian appears to be staying wide on the right for longer periods than before, while Trent Alexander-Arnold moves inwards, and the usually slick interaction between them on the right flank seems to be missing from Liverpool’s game altogether.
As for Van Dijk, he always appears to be dealing with threats in a casual way, showing an extreme level of confidence. Now, however, he seems too relaxed sometimes. His reactions are looking slow, and he doesn’t paint the picture of an indomitable wall as he used to anymore.
Be that as it may, Liverpool need players like Van Dijk and Salah to step up and start delivering again quite soon, or the season could go from bad to worse.
Only 21 years old, Kvaratskhelia has shown he can deliver truly superb football at the greatest stage, against any opposition. Poor form or not, Liverpool is Liverpool and the Georgian caused them all sorts of problems right from the start.
Boasting a lot of pace and confidence, fine vision, on top of a sublime ability to control the ball and dribble past opponents, Kvaratskhelia seems like a perfect winger in the modern game, even though he is yet to make a real mark in one of the top five Europan leagues. Actually, without any desire to make any indications, he is exactly the player Liverpool could do with to offer a proper alternative for Mo Salah; maybe even a long-term successor.
Kvaratskhelia spent just under three years with Rubin Kazan, leaving the club in March this year as FIFA chose to allow those playing in Russia to terminate their contracts without compensation if they wanted, due to the armed conflict still ongoing in Ukraine. He went back to Georgia and played for Dinamo Batumi for three months, before joining Napoli this summer for €10 million. In the Serie A and the Champions League combined, he has six goal involvements (four goals, two assists) in six matches.
There are many factors that can impact a player’s career, but at the moment, it looks as if we’re watching the making of a bright football star for years to come.
Pleased with the evening’s work, Napoli will now turn to the domestic affairs after strongly increasing their chances of a place in the round of 16 in UEFA’s elite competition. There is a lot still to do of course, but beating Liverpool at the start of the campaign, so comprehensively at that, will be a huge boost.
On Saturday, Spalletti’s team will welcome Spezia at the Maradona, and given everything we saw against Liverpool, as well as against Lazio in Rome in the previous round of the Serie A, a win shouldn’t really come into question and Napoli should break to the top of the table, at least for 24 hours, before current leaders Atalanta take on Cremonese.
As for Liverpool, they welcome Wolverhampton Wanderers to Anfield, and it seems that match could see them battle against an old foe. Former Chelsea striker Diego Costa is on his way back to the Premier League, with Wolves expected to confirm the signing of the 33-year-old free agent later today (Thursday).
But the Merseysiders probably aren’t looking forward to their next match, given the amount of problems they must resolve by then if they wish to avoid another disappointing result. With Thiago now fully back, they’ll probably look a lot better from the start, but given his injury record, Klopp must find a way to make his team tick even without the former Bayern Munich playmaker.
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