It was nothing more than the home side deserved in Naples, Lorenzo Insigne getting on the end of Jose Callejon’s brilliant low cross in stoppage time to poke in the winner.
Here is our report card from the Stadio San Paolo.
After bossing Paris Saint-Germain on opening night, Liverpool launched themselves into the ascendancy. But as terrific as they were at Anfield, they looked timid in Naples as their free-flowing attack was first stunted by an organised home defence and then outshone by the increasingly encouraged hosts.
A lifeless first half was replaced by a far more engaging second 45 minutes – it would not have been hard to better it. Alisson was a colossus between the sticks for the visitors as he alertly kept out Arkadiusz Milik and Insigne. He was helpless however as Callejon’s devilish ball was tucked home by Insigne.
As PSG purred earlier in their 6-1 ravaging of Red Star Belgrade, there was plenty here for Jurgen Klopp to ponder.
Virgil van Dijk – Much of the focus is usually on Liverpool’s vivacious attack and the destruction they cause. But while this game in Naples wasn’t much of an attacking spectacle, there was plenty to admire in the Reds’ rearguard solidity overall. Questions and eyebrows were raised when a princely £75 million sum was paid for Virgil van Dijk in January 2017. No questions remain now and the only eyebrows raised are at the suggestion that there is a finer centre-back in world football.
Dries Mertens – Questions will be raised over the decision not to start him, but the diminutive Belgian answered his team’s call when he was summoned from the bench with his side having acquired the upper-hand. Already starting to get stretched, Liverpool were desperately clinging to their hard-earned point as Mertens marauded into the spaces rapidly being opened up in their back-line. He should have scored himself but just as the Reds thought they’d earned a reprieve, it was ripped away.
The first half – It’s safe to say a lot was expected from this encounter, but it failed to live up to the billing in the opening 45 minutes. The two sides are mirror images of each other in many ways, the impish attacking talents of Insigne, Mertens and Callejon going up against dynamic Liverpool trio Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino.
It should have provided both sets of fans with plenty to look forward to, but neither side could quite find the spark to ignite the game initially.
Liverpool’s three amigos – At first glance, a point away from home in the Champions League is not to be sniffed at, especially at opponents as illustrious as Napoli. But Klopp will unlikely have witnessed such a disjointed display from his stunning attacking trio during his tenure – his team failed to muster a single shot on target.
Mohamed Salah’s woes continued as the home side’s regimented defence were stout in a Carlo Ancelotti masterclass – a manager leading his eighth club in the Champions League. Salah’s 65.2 per cent pass success was the worst of any outfield player bar late substitute Daniel Sturridge, while he and Sadio Mane were dispossessed a team high three times. Roberto Firmino was similarly anonymous.
TACTICAL TURNING POINT
Dries lightning – As time ticked away, perhaps Ancelotti might have taken a pragmatic approach and settled for a point. But he sensed his side were getting on top as Liverpool looked increasingly more ragged, and introduced the livewire Belgian – it was odd he had not started – who tried to light the blue touch paper. He probed, prodded, chased and harried as the visitors desperately tried to cling on.
Always in control during a dull first half and then taking the initiative as the game belatedly opened up in the second, it looked for so long as if Napoli’s efforts would go unrewarded. They were made to wait but their stoppage time winner was nothing less than what they deserved, finished off by the industrious Insigne, who finished the night as captain.
Setting up his team to be difficult to beat is not really a Klopp trait – even in big European away games such as this. If Napoli had been more clinical or possessed a little more stardust in attack, and didn’t have Alisson in the opposite goal, Liverpool would have been sunk much earlier. But the Reds will look ahead and they now have a double-header against group minnows Red Star.
Carlo Ancelotti’s tactical masterclass squeezed the life out of the usually rampant Liverpool attack as Lorenzo Insigne earned a 1-0 win for Napoli that blew Group C of the Champions League wide open.
With the hosts playing a high line and switching between three and four at the back in and out of possession, Liverpool could neither pass nor use their pace to play around the dominant hosts.
Super-sub Dries Mertens led the charge, while Allan was indomitable in midfield. The Reds’ attacking three, however, come in for low marks.
Check out our ratings below …
NAPOLI RATINGS (4-3-3)
David Ospina – Must have been expecting a busy night but, to the surprise of everyone, could have spent the game perched on a deckchair. 6
Nikola Maksimovic – His role was very much one of a Steady Eddy and performed his defensive duties well. 6
Raul Albiol – Not as mobile as Koulibaly, but was often in the right place at the right time to mop up the loose ends. 7
Kalidou Koulibaly – Impervious in defence and popped up almost everywhere else, playing on the left wing at points as Napoli went to a three-man defence in possession. 8
Mario Rui – Ran himself into the ground and nearly ran the Reds out of town with a defeat, delivering the ball that saw Mertens crash against the woodwork. 8
Allan – Snipped off the supply lines to Liverpool’s trident and his passing accuracy would have impressed Xavi in his pomp. Monster performance. 9
Marek Hamsik – Occupying a deeper role with Jorginho now in London. So assured in possession, though regrettably his forward forays have been sacrificed. 7
Fabian Ruiz – Perhaps the least impressive of Napoli’s midfield unit, but helped keep the balance on the left. 6
Jose Callejon – The most likely attacking outlet for Napoli before Ancelotti’s superb subs came on, and his superb driven cross was a thing of beauty for Insigne’s winner. 8
Arkadiusz Milik – At one point Callejon was visibly frustrated by the striker’s lack of movement. A more dynamic frontman could have made the result more emphatic. 4
Lorenzo Insigne – Plugged away without too much joy before he stole into the box and sent the Neapolitans into raptures at the death. 7
Dries Mertens – Played a delicious through ball to Callejon that was wrongly flagged offside, then found the crossbar from a few yards out. Should have started ahead of Milik. 7
Simone Verdi – Helped stretch the legs of the Liverpool defence when he came on for Ruiz, though his impact was limited. 6
Piotr Zielinski – A more-than-adequate replacement for Hamsik in the last 10 minutes to keep Napoli surging towards an eventual winner. 6
LIVERPOOL RATINGS (4-3-3)
Alisson – Parried a few shots and generally remained unflustered at the back – Callejon’s cross was simply too good to deal with. 7
Trent Alexander-Arnold – Great recovery tackle on Ruiz at one point, but looked shaky when Napoli turned it up in the second half. 5
Joe Gomez – Liverpool spent so long searching for one decent centre-back – and now they’ve got two. Mini Van Dijk did his best to hold Napoli at bay. 8
Virgil van Dijk – Makes everything look so easy, both on the ball and off it. The Reds’ centre-backs were not at fault, getting very little support from their team-mates. 8
Andrew Robertson – Did his best to shackle Callejon and was successful for the most part. Simply could not get going in an attacking capacity, however. 6
James Milner – So brilliant in Europe last season, but his only significant contribution to this game was going in the referee’s book. 3
Georginio Wijnaldum – Will still be dizzy when he wakes up on Thursday after chasing the shadows of Allan and Hamsik. 4
Naby Keita – Energetic in early stages, though gift-wrapped a chance for Insigne, before injury forced a premature substitution. 5
Mohamed Salah – It’s just not happening for the Egyptian King. Aside from a few neat – and rare – touches in Napoli’s box, was given no breathing space by the hosts’ high line. 4
Roberto Firmino – No shots. Which is okay if you’re as good as linking the play as Firmino. But he made no passes of note. 3
Sadio Mane – The only member of the attacking trio to run at Napoli a couple of times, but that’s about as generous as you can be. 4
Jordan Henderson – Thrust into action because of Keita’s injury and struggled to show any energy or accuracy in a compressed midfield. 4
Fabinho – Could not stem the tide for the final 15 minutes as Napoli got stronger and stronger as the game wore on. 5
Daniel Sturridge – Klopp waited until the 89th minute for his last throw of the dice. N/A
Here’s a look at the talking points from the game.
VERRATTI SHOWING RAISES ANFIELD QUESTIONS
Marco Verratti missed PSG’s loss to Liverpool through suspension, but though Red Star didn’t offer the same level of challenge, this game still showed how crucial the Italian is to the side. Marquinhos replaced Verratti at Anfield, and, as he has in the past, looked out of sorts as a makeshift defensive midfielder.
On Wednesday, Verratti had more touches (112) and attempted and completed more passes (130, 92.3 per cent) than anyone on the pitch, and he also made more tackles (10) than anyone else.
It’s performances like these which show why he’s considered a classic Barcelona midfielder, though he may never end up joining the Catalan giants if the Ligue 1 champions have their way. On form, he, more than any of the star names in the squad, is the player who makes PSG tick, controlling possession with his precise, metronomic passing, as well as his feistiness and defensive vigilance.
Again, though Verratti has already established his pedigree as a top-class midfielder, it’s hard to read too much into this performance given the opposition. But it does beget the question how much better PSG would have been against Liverpool if Verratti had been available.
RABIOT CONTINUES TO DELIVER DESPITE CONTRACT STAND-OFF
The Parisians’ other star central midfielder is persevering on this season despite it likely being his last campaign in the French capital. Adrien Rabiot rejected a third contract offer this week, and it’s almost certain that he’ll be on his way out of the club next summer – likely to Barcelona, coincidentally.
But there’s no sign of Rabiot being distracted by these off-field issues, even if it would be understandable that his motivation to play for the club was waning. Instead, the Frenchman has been the consummate professional, with this another in a string of performances that have shown Rabiot’s class in midfield.
It helps playing alongside someone like Verratti, but Rabiot is a brilliant midfielder in his own right. He ended up finishing second behind his colleague on the same three stats – touches, attempted passes, and completed passes – and showed off his defensive chops with the way he dominated in the air. No-one won more defensive aerial duels (seven) than Rabiot on Wednesday.
As it stands, it seems PSG have no chance of keeping Rabiot beyond this season. They’ll no doubt buy a replacement, but he’ll be a big loss.
MOVE ALONG, NOTHING TO SEE HERE
On paper, a 6-1 win with a Neymar hat-trick and Cavani and Mbappe also getting on the scoresheet seems exciting enough. But though PSG were good to watch against Red Star, there was nothing to learn here. They do this against league opponents every week.
Only when they can replicate this level of performance, if not necessarily the same scoreline, against more challenging opponents, will they truly earn any plaudits. Last season they beat Bayern Munich at home, but then slumped away and nearly relinquished top spot of their group, before losing to Real Madrid in the Round of 16. The year before that, of course, was the infamous loss to Barcelona, seeing a 4-0 first-leg lead overturned by a 6-1 loss.
Viewed through the prism of those results, the Matchday 1 loss to Liverpool seems like just as expected a result as Wednesday’s dominating win was. Tuchel’s real achievement will be when PSG can replicate this sort of form against a team like the Reds, and of course, they’ll get their chance soon enough. Until then, however, even 6-1 wins will feel humdrum.