It’s that special time of year again. The European champions are back in action and they will finally be laying their first defence of the crown that sets them apart from the rest.
Liverpool travel to southern Italy to begin their European title defence against Napoli on Tuesday evening. It will be the first time the Reds will be in Champions League action since Jordan Henderson raised Ole Big Ears to the heavens following that magical night in Madrid back in June.
Quite significantly the first game of the 2019/20 European campaign for Jurgen Klopp and his team is profoundly their most difficult. Liverpool will face off with Carlo Ancelotti’s Neapolitans yet again after being thrown into the same group as the Serie A runners-up and it will also see a return trip to San Paolo which the Reds manager labelled as the ‘worst’ performance of the season when the two teams met in October 2018.
It can be rather speculative to dwindle on previous results and assume that history is prone to repeating itself as of course football is guilty of instead doing the exact opposite. However, it is important to analyse and envisage the threat of the opposition, and considering this is a threat the Reds have become increasingly accustomed to over the years the defeat in Naples 11 months ago could provide a linear pathway to success this time around.
The outcome of this match could immediately shape the context regarding who is likely to progress, which is highly unusual at this early stage, but considering the European pedigree between the two teams in comparison to the other opponents to make up Group E, a win for Liverpool would almost inexorably set them as undoubted favourites to win the group and set them on their way to progress towards the last 16.
It could also provide Klopp with a rare opportunity to get off the mark and get their Champions League destiny swiftly in their own hands whilst avoiding repeats of the last two group-stage campaigns that saw the Reds requiring victories on the final match-week to ensure qualification to the knockout stages. This would then allow the Liverpool boss to be more flexible with his changes should qualification be wrapped up as early as possible.
This raises the concern of almost thinking too far ahead, but that is the next challenge for a team that achieved a domestic count of 97 points whilst also securing a club sixth European cup. The bar has been raised to an excruciatingly high level.
When the two teams faced off in San Paulo just under a year ago, Andy Robertson described the defeat as one of the worst performances of the campaign for the European champions and believes the inaugural continental bout of the season for the Reds is the perfect opportunity to get the ball up and running again in Europe.
Speaking to the Liverpool Echo ahead of the match in Naples the Scotland captain said: “Of course [we can lay down a marker]
“The group is going to be tough but that’s the chance we’ve got, the chance to win and get three points from the second seeds.
“We know how close it was between us and them last season, it was so important that we won the home game. We’ll look to be more comfortable this season hopefully going through the group stages because it was a wee bit close for comfort last season.
“The way to do that is by putting in a good performance and getting off to a good start.
“The result followed the performance and the performance wasn’t good enough [last year].
“It was poor from our perspective in all the away games really last season in the group stages, we didn’t really perform. We need to be better than that.”
Liverpool’s fifth European-winning captain Henderson also understood the significance of the defeat last season and insisted it was a learning curve to help the Reds on their way to a second consecutive Champions League final.
“When we came here last year we didn’t perform well”, Henderson revealed in his pre-match press conference.
“We had the analysis after the game and we have improved a lot. Hopefully, tomorrow night is much better and if that is the case, we have a better chance. Napoli are a really good side.”
Astonishingly, the defeat to Napoli was the only occasion all season where the Reds failed to register a single shot on target all game.
Liverpool were outfought in possession boasting only 43 per cent of the ball in comparison to Napoli’s 57. Also, it was one of the rare few times where Klopp’s team were actually beaten in aerial duels with the hosts bettering the Reds in the air 11-9.
This was largely due to the aerial dominance and overall impressive performance of the imperious Kalidou Koulibaly. The Senegalese powerhouse utterly dominated the likes of Roberto Firmino, Mohamed Salah and co whilst also ushering a rare tendency for a central defender looking so composed and assured on the ball and was one of the reasons why Napoli were able to keep arguably the world’s most formidable front-three at bay which is significantly profound these days.
According to Goal and their Liverpool correspondent Neil Jones, it has been revealed that Koulibaly was in fact on Liverpool’s transfer radar when the Reds were in the shopping market for a new centre-half. His manager Ancelotti has even stated that he ranks the in-demand colossal figure as the best centre-back in the world.
“He belongs to the class of [Paolo] Maldini, [Lilian] Thuram, Thiago Silva,” said the Champions League’s joint-most successful manager in March. A few weeks later, Ancelotti declared that “he is worth €150m.” with some of Europe’s biggest hitters in for the player who joined Napoli from Genk in 2014.
The performance of Koulibaly meant that Liverpool were not able to really test Napoli goalkeeper and former Arsenal shot-stopper, David Ospina on one occasion. After seeing Koulibaly in the flesh one of Liverpool’s coaching staff was left bemused by the talents of the 28-year-old defender ranking him as the best central defender the Reds had come across stating he was just “so good, so strong, he’s got everything.”
The Reds also were only able to boast four shots all game which in comparison to the 23 total shots Liverpool managed to account in the home fixture against the Neapolitans suggests just how they struggled to adapt the threat and intensity opposed by the Italian outfit.
Liverpool were also only limited to one corner all game and rarely managed to maintain the ball in the opposition half. The Reds’ inability to penetrate Napoli allowed the home team to expose the Reds on the counter-attack which allowed Lorenzo Insigne to wreak havoc on both flanks.
The threat of the Italian forward could encourage Klopp to deploy Joe Gomez at right-back similarly to how he did in the away-tie against Barcelona to contain the threat of Insigne. It was a difficult night for Trent Alexander-Arnold when up against the 28-year-old speedster in October 2018 and it was the Englishman who failed to track the run of Insigne who burst in behind Gomez and Alexander-Arnold to tap home the winner deep into stoppage time in the Sao Paulo stadium.
Napoli will also have some fresh faces for Klopp and co when the two teams line-up against each other on Tuesday. Ancelotti has recruited a number of new signings who could be considered a threat for Liverpool. Kostas Monolas – who famously scored the winner in Roma’s 3-0 miraculous victory against Barcelona – looks an assured figure alongside Koulibaly and could prove to be one of Europe’s most formidable defensive partnerships. Former Tottenham Hotspur’s striker Fernando Llorente has also joined Serie A and will be looking for revenge following defeat to the Red’s during the Champions League final in Madrid. Hirving Lozano also looks a shrewd appointment after impressing in the Eredivisie with PSV scoring 17 goals and registering eight assists during the 2018/19 campaign.
It remains to be seen how different barings will be a year on from that painful defeat in Naples. However, Liverpool are a different beast compared to the team that was brushed aside a year ago. Klopp has assembled a squad that have adopted multiple forms of adjustments when thrown against the cosh and the 2019/20 team is certainly one of the most feared in Europe.
If the Reds can leave the south of Italy with a win then they will be the obvious favourites to top the group. However, Liverpool have a bad habit of making life difficult for themselves in the early stages of the competition and only time will tell to just how much the European champions have improved since lifting the trophy for a sixth occasion back in June.