Liverpool will reacquaint themselves with familiar adversaries when they reconvene their postponed Premier League season on Sunday evening.
The title-chasing Reds face off against Everton in the Merseyside derby at Goodison Park, knowing that a win will either — depending on how Arsenal fare when they face Manchester City away on Wednesday night — put them within touching distance of a 19th English top-flight triumph or — should the Gunners eke out a surprise victory at the Etihad — seal a so-far elusive Premier League title win.
Sitting in the Blues dugout will be a familiar dance partner of Liverpool, Carlo Ancelotti. The Italian’s former club, Napoli, have drawn the Reds in the group stages of the Champions League in each of the last two European campaigns. Here, the former Chelsea, Milan and Real Madrid manager has masterminded two wins — both at the San Paolo — and a draw against Jurgen Klopp’s charges.
The Anfield team’s solitary victory over the Serie A side came in December 2018, when Mohamed Salah’s goal — as well as a miraculous last-minute save from Alisson Becker on Arkadiusz Milik — delivered a 1-0 victory that booked the Reds’ passage into the next round. Despite the closeness of the score, however, a single goal defeat massively flattered the traveling Italians. Sadio Mane, in particular, was guilty of spurning several gilt-edged opportunities as Liverpool’s pace and slick interplay filleted through Napoli’s rearguard.
That performance and result proved to be an exception as Ancelotti — to his massive, tactical credit — has found a way to stymie Liverpool’s front three and cut off their service. The wily, cock eyebrowed former PSG coach has deployed a deep sitting 442 against the Reds.
With Napoli’s two banks of four, narrowly tethered together in a disciplined and claustrophobic manner, the central band of the pitch was flooded and any hope of playing penetratively through the middle went up in smoke. The onus, as it often does, fell on Trent Alexander Arnold and Andrew Robertson to provide the creative inspiration for Liverpool. But even the vaunted full-back duo proved they are only human and the only route to chances came through crosses, which the Partenopei defenders — marshaled by the giant Kalidou Koulibaly — easily dealt with.
Diego Simeone employed a similar style of nullifying tactics during the Reds recent Champions League last 16 clash with Atletico Madrid and they worked well in the first leg at the Wanda Metropolitano, where Saul Niguez goal — coupled with Simeone’s iron bonded 442 — earned the home team a priceless 1-0 victory.
The return leg, however, wasn’t so comfortable for the Spaniards and — despite their after extra-time victory — a pair of errors from Adrian in the Liverpool goal — as well as heroics from his counterpart, Jan Oblak — undermined what was an excellent performance for the hosts.
Key to Liverpool’s attacking thrust that night was Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. The England international — starting alongside Georginio Wijnaldum with Jordan Henderson behind in a midfield three — was a thorn in the Spaniard’s side with his powerful running and ambitious passing.
Fans of the game Football Manager will be familiar with the role of Mezzala, a centre midfielder — or as it is known in Italian, a half winger — who plays in the half-spaces and who can play either inside or outside of a teams shape. In the ultimately unsuccessful second leg clash with Atletico, Oxlade-Chamberlain played the Mezzala role to a tee, running at Simeone’s men both down the flanks and through the middle, distorting their defensive shape and making space for others around him.
Oxlade Chamberlain vs Atletico Madrid pic.twitter.com/tKREXs1umr
— LFC Comps (@LFCComps) March 12, 2020
Wijnaldum’s opening goal, a powerful header into the left-hand bottom corner, came as a result of Oxlade Chamberlain — in the manner of an old school, chalk on the boots winger — crossing from the right-hand side and finding the Dutchman to nod home. Wijnaldum turned provider soon after, mimicking the former Arsenal man and crossing from wide for Firmino — at the second attempt, after Oblak saved his initial header — to score.
Ahead of the upcoming derby, Oxlade Chamberlain — up against what will likely be an ultra-defensive alignment from Ancelotti, whose side have shipped injuries to Jean Philippe Gbamin, Andre Gomes and Morgan Schneiderlin — can be the key to unlock the Toffees defense. With the Reds failing to crack an obstinate Everton defence in two of the last three Goodison derbies — although a heavily rotated team didn’t help in 17/18, as the game was sandwiched between two legs of a European Cup semi-final, and some toothless finishing saw the Blues survive in last season’s game — their dynamic number 23 could make all the difference and bring title number 19 that little bit closer.