Building up to Liverpool’s trip to Naples for matchday two of the Champions League on Wednesday night, much of the talk was about the last time they faced Napoli away from home.
Eight years ago, Roy Hodgson had the reigns as his team picked up a valuable point in the Europa League, playing out a goalless draw.
The sight of the 11 Liverpool players that lined up on that night highlighted the progression the Reds have made since that day. Supporters were given flashbacks of a time when Paul Konchesky, Christian Poulsen and Milan Jovanovic wore the famous red shirt.
Now, on Liverpool’s return, the anticipation levels were through the roof as the prolific trio of Sadio Mane, Roberto Firmino and Mo Salah looked set to terrorise the Italian’s defence.
The 90 minutes that followed saw Jurgen Klopp’s side serve up one of the most forgettable displays in his time as head coach, as Lorenzo Insigne’s goal in the final stages meant they would travel home empty handed. The worst part was, that in gaining nothing from the contest Liverpool got exactly what they deserved.
It was the first time we have seen Klopp’s Reds set-up to avoid defeat, rather than go out for all three points, and quite frankly those tactics don’t suit them. They are at their best when they pick off teams with blistering counter attacks and fluid transition from defence to attack. That kind of Liverpool is a joy to watch, rather than the painful viewing supporters were put through on Wednesday evening.
Far too many of their consistent performers were below par. The midfield trio was disrupted early due to an injury to Naby Keita, however his 20-minute Champions League debut for Liverpool will be remembered only for a handful of misplaced passes that put the back four under pressure.
Jordan Henderson’s introduction looked to bring some life to the midfield, however that energy soon faded and Napoli began to thrive. Liverpool were uncommitted in the final third, as they opted to turn the ball back to the defenders and goalkeeper instead of looking for a forward option.
Trent Alexander-Arnold looked lethargic as he surrendered possession too often, and Andy Robertson was caught napping for the goal in an otherwise steady performance, however that lapse in concentration ultimately cost the travelling side a point.
The front three fired blanks all evening, as Liverpool failed to register a single shot on target. The last time that happened in the Champions League was back in 2006, as they were beaten 1-0 by Benfica. Mane was the only threat out of the attacking trio, but he had to come deep too often as he was forced to feed off scraps. Firmino didn’t get a sniff and Salah was triple marked out of the game, which turned out to be a masterstroke from Carlo Ancelotti.
On the surface, it was a poor performance which brought Liverpool back down to earth after an impressive start to the season. Naples isn’t easy to conquer though. Manchester City are the only English side to beat Napoli away from home following their 4-2 victory last season, meaning the Reds are in good company having come home from Italy disappointed.
Then, when you examine their last month of fixtures, Klopp’s side were bound to falter at some stage. They have faced Tottenham away from home, PSG at Anfield, Chelsea twice in the space of three days and then had to visit Napoli yesterday evening.
Even if they fail to beat the defending champions at Anfield on Sunday, the worst-case scenario will see Liverpool fall three points behind the top of the table. Then, the following seven fixtures, with the exception of a trip to the Emirates, are all games which Klopp’s side will be expected to win. Even if the Reds end the week having failed to win on their last four outings, they will still be in a brilliant position.
They have come through a testing period and shown that they can win ugly, have the depth to snatch a point from the bench and that even without their front three at their best they are still a threat, barring a poor tactical set-up in Italy.
If Klopp sets his Liverpool team up to play how they did against Napoli, then any chance of picking up three points is off the table. However, in front of their own supporters against a team they defeated three times last campaign, there is a feeling that they are obliged to revert back to the Liverpool we all know.
A Liverpool that is fast, fluid, assured on the ball and above all, plays with only one goal. To win, not to avoid defeat.