A contentious Dries Mertens penalty and a late Fernando Llorente goal saw Liverpool start their European Cup defence start with a 2-0 defeat to Napoli in Italy.
Jurgen Klopp made three alterations to the team that defeated Newcastle on Saturday, with James Milner and Jordan Henderson returning to the midfield in place of Georginio Wijnaldum and Alex Oxlade Chamberlain respectively and Roberto Firmino replacing the injured Divock Origi in attack.
Carlo Ancelotti selected a Napoli team full of pace — Hirving Lozano, Lorenzo Insigne, Jose Callejon and Dries Mertens all started — and their game plan was evidently to hit the spaces behind the Reds’ high defensive line with diagonal balls
Albeit not intentionally, this is how the hosts created the games first big chance.
A lumped clearance fell fortunately behind Alexander Arnold and into the path of Insigne and his pass found Fabian. The Spaniard forced a double save from Adrian, his compatriot. Lozano modded the second effort into the net, but the Mexican was well offside. Counterpressing was proving to be a valuable source of chances for Liverpool, with Jordan Henderson and Fabinho especially adept at pilfering the ball back. The final ball was lacking, however, or on the occasion the Reds manufactured a shooting opportunity Sadio Mané hit straight at Alex Meret. A trademark counter almost opened the Reds account. Mané slipped a through into James Milner’s path and the midfielders cross was snuffed out by Mario Rui as the ball was heading towards Salah in the box.
From the resulting corner, Firmino headed narrowly wide from a short corner worked to Milner. The visitors were really turning the screw and Ancelotti’s men would have been glad to hear the half time whistle. Liverpool had Adrian to thank for preserving their lead at the start of the second half. The Spaniard somehow managed to push Mertens’ volley over the bar after Rui’s pinpoint cross looped over van Dijk and found the diminutive Belgian at the backpost.
The Reds squandered a golden counter attacking situation moments later. Mané made upwards of 70 yards after a corner from Napoli was undercooked and left them exposed. With a two versus one outside the box, the Senegal international completely misshit his pass to Salah when a good pass would’ve put the Egyptian through on goal.
Salah almost gave Klopp’s men the lead in the 65th minute. Kostas Manolas’ wild attempt at a clearance fell in the path of the Egyptian, but his low strike was brilliantly saved by Meret.
The game was quite even and it was going to take something out of the ordinary to break the deadlock. Step forward, Callejon.
When one on one with Robertson, the Spaniard — on second glance — clearly dived but was nonetheless awarded the penalty. Adrian got a hand to Mertens low penalty, but it wasn’t enough as the ball nestled in the net. One wonders the point of VAR if it is not used to overrule clearly wrong decisions.
The hosts good fortunes continued soon after as van Dijk’s pass saw Robertson and Matip hesitate and Llorente — not on long as a substitute — poked home from close range.
The full time whistle blew with Napoli stealing a 2-0 victory, which, in the history books, will seem comfortable; the truth is, it was far from an accurate reflection of a game where the lack of a final ball was Liverpool’s nemesis.
Liverpool team: Adrian, Alexander Arnold, Matip, van Dijk, Robertson; Fabinho, Milner, Henderson; Salah, Firmino, Mane.
Substitutions: Wijnaldum for Milner, Shaqiri for Henderson.
Subs not used: Kelleher, Lovren, Gomez, Lallana, Oxlade Chamberlain.