After two fascinating battles against Maurizio Sarri’s Chelsea, Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool are back in Champions League action against Sarri’s old team, Napoli. The Reds travel to Naples to take on Napoli at the Stadio San Paolo. It promises to be an intriguing battle, and a win would put the Reds firmly in charge of their own destiny in Group C of the Champions League.
Liverpool beat PSG 3-2 on the opening day of their European campaign this season, while the Italians could only manage a goalless draw against Red Star Belgrade. Carlo Ancelotti’s side are no pushovers, and with a partisan crowd behind them in Naples, they will be a stern opposition for the Reds.
Here are some key individual duels that will decide the outcome of the game.
ALLAN v JAMES MILNER
In the absence of Jorginho, Allan’s importance to the Napoli midfield has grown multifold. He is one of the most underrated players in world football and his abilities as a defensive midfielder are as good as the best in the business.
For Liverpool, their Mr. Reliable has been on fire since the start of the season. Milner has seen a total renaissance of himself as a player in 2018, and he will be looking to bounce back from two indifferent showings against Chelsea.
Chelsea showed that against midfielders with technical prowess on the ball, Milner is not as comfortable as he would be, with his pressing game. He’s always one with the lower efficiency numbers in Liverpool’s midfield and that feels like an area that Napoli would target.
But for Milner, the recent past has been about not adhering to common sense. Who’d have thought that, at 32, he’d break the Champions League assists record for a single season, in the Reds run to the final last year?
He is at the stage of his career where he knows his role to perfection, and he understands his limitations. Milner will cover ground, we all know that. Whether Allan can force him to cover ground in areas where Napoli are comfortable in dealing with him, will be the big question.
KALIDOU KOULIBALY v ROBERTO FIRMINO
Koulibaly is one of the most talented centre-backs going around in world football. He’s pacy on his feet, reads the game well, is strong and he’s fabulous in the air. That is almost the complete package that you’d want from your centre-back. A tough night then, for Liverpool’s hero from matchday 1? You’d have to imagine so.
But Firmino is a unique centre-forward, and unlike most that Koulibaly would have faced in his career thus far. It is going to be a huge game for Firmino, after his indifference at Stamford Bridge, especially with his decision making.
The plot to this duel will lie in the battle between Koulibaly’s physical prowess, and Firmino’s movement and speed of thought. The Brazilian’s decision-making will have to be much quicker and much better than it was at Stamford Bridge, if the Reds are to gain a solid platform through the work that he puts in.
Against Hysaj and Mario Rui, Mo Salah and Sadio Mane are going to cause problems with their pace and runs in behind the defence, but Firmino is the man that makes those runs happen by dropping deep to provide the flying wingers the space to run into.
It’s going to a unique test for Koulibaly, and for Firmino, it is just going to be a case of being sharp and decisive against a Napoli defence that was put to the sword by Cristiano Ronaldo and co. over the weekend.
DRIES MERTENS v VIRGIL VAN DIJK
If facing Koulibaly is a slightly daunting proposition, imagine the magnitude of the task that faces Mertens on Wednesday. Virgil van Dijk has quickly proved since his move to Liverpool that he is one of the best centre-backs in the league. He may even be in the discussion for the best centre-back in the world, even if he isn’t the undisputed no.1.
The big Dutchman is so crucial to the Reds. He is the leader of that back four, and is the one that everyone around him looks up to. Against the little Belgian, Van Dijk’s ability with a long ball is not going to be as important as his fleetness of foot. We all know that he is no slouch, as was exemplified by a stunning recovery run and tackle against Willian on Saturday, when the Chelsea man was well and truly face-to-face with Alisson in goal.
Van Dijk cannot afford to let Mertens have any kind of room in and around Liverpool’s box, because the little Belgian possesses a special ability to conjure magic out of seemingly nothing.
If Van Dijk can win his duel with Mertens, the job might well be half done for the Reds.