Liverpool blew the chance to seal qualification for the Champions League knockout stages with an insipid 1-1 draw at home to beleaguered Napoli.
The Serie A side have become engulfed by internal strife since a 2-0 win in Naples two months ago, with alarming form being shown domestically. And yet Carlo Ancelotti’s side very much pulled themselves together on Merseyside and made life uncomfortable for the hosts.
Dries Mertens drilled in a brilliant opener after racing away and leaving Virgil van Dijk in a heap. Dejan Lovren rescued a point soon after the hour with a towering header from a corner, but the Reds were unable to rally and find a winner.
They remain top of Group E on 10 points, with Napoli one point further back. But Red Bull Salzburg’s 4-1 win in Genk leaves it all to play for on the final matchday.
NAPOLI SOLDIER ON
Napoli’s famed club anthem is called O Surdato ’Nnammurato (The Soldier in Love) – and the Partenopei deserve huge credit for soldiering on in the wake of the recent farcical scandal it has become embroiled by.
The club finds itself in the middle of an internal civil war ignited between the players and controversial club president Aurelio De Laurentiis, who is believed to have fined every member of the squad half a month’s wages.
It all stems from a poor run of form including no victories in seven games in all competitions prior including the visit to Anfield and a refusal by the players to attend a training retreat to Castel Volturno in the wake of the 1-1 draw with Salzburg in the previous Champions League group game.
It is believed De Laurentiis has dished out fines totalling €2.5 million and is even willing to sell his more sought-after players – incredible given they beat the Reds 2-0 at Stadio San Paolo and sat top of Group E in mid-September. Just three wins from 10 league games since, however, has seen them slip to seventh in Serie A – 15 points adrift of leaders and reigning champions Juventus.
Regardless of the result, they marched in unison at Anfield and put in a spirited and vibrant performance full of attacking and defensive intent and passion. Brazilian midfielder Allan led all players with five tackles, while Kostas Manolas did likewise with 14 clearances.
Napoli’s soldiers may not be in love quite like the song made famous by the beloved Luciano Pavarotti suggests. But there was plenty to admire about their performance.
LIVERPOOL LACK FLOW
With a daunting run of fixtures on the horizon Jurgen Klopp made the call to give several of his key players a rest ahead of a game against embattled opponents fighting for form and morale.
Perhaps the giant German thought it was a chance to capitalise.
With Napoli one of 14 games to come in 43 days, players clearly require close monitoring and rest. But the result still leaves Liverpool short of qualification and has allowed Salzburg a sniff.
A win would have seen the champions progress, and progress top, yet they looked uncharacteristically blunt in attack. Even when they got the equaliser through an unlikely source – Lovren – Napoli keeper Alex Meret was far from under siege.
Liverpool’s lacklustre approach could have stemmed from the absence of marauding right-back Trent Alexander-Arnold, who has become such a pivotal presence on their right flank. Georginio Wijnaldum’s usual drive and industry in the engine room was also sorely lacking from the start – instead it was the energy and effort of Napoli pivots Allan and Fabian Ruiz that excited.
Alexander-Arnold’s absence – he was belatedly introduced with 12 minutes remaining – was puzzling, given his high stats this term.
His 3.5 key passes per game leads Liverpool in the Premier League and is 1.6 more than Sadio Mane’s 1.9. He has 46 in total this season, 21 more than Mane in second. That figure is also good enough to jointly lead the Premier League. Alexander-Arnold has as many as Manchester City maestro Kevin De Bruyne.
Andrew Robertson – TAA’s mirror image on the left flank – made a game-high three key passes, but the two are very much a tandem act.
WILL ANYONE DEPART THE PARTENOPEI?
Such is the nature of the furious stand-off between the Napoli playing staff and owner, De Laurentiis is reportedly considering letting some of his star players such as Kalidou Koulibaly, Mertens and Lorenzo Insigne leave.
Now, whatever the circumstances and however riled he has been by the whole situation, it would be fanciful in the extreme to suggest that De Laurentiis would actually cut loose his star men – even one of them – on a whim.
But, interestingly, there will be plenty of sharks circling the waters around Naples should the madcap owner feel he has been pushed to the brink of mutiny himself.
Koulibaly is coveted by some of the biggest clubs in Europe, with Real Madrid and Manchester United long-time admirers. Even though Harry Maguire emerged as the Red Devils’ top target in the end last summer, shaky performances from Victor Lindelof – plus the potential of a cut-price deal – could see them come sniffing once more.
Eder Militao, meanwhile, is yet to either fully get his chance – or convince – at Santiago Bernabeu, with Los Blancos’ defence remaining their Achilles heel.
Captain Insigne, meanwhile, has been named by many as the instigator of the mutiny and could find his head on the block – perhaps made an example of. Ironically, Liverpool could be one of his potential landing spots, as well as Borussia Dortmund and Inter Milan.
Mertens is another linked with Inter – who have usurped Napoli this season as Juve’s main title rivals. The brilliant Belgian’s clinical finish on Merseyside was further evidence that he would walk into most elite European attacks. Watch this space.