Champions League: Napoli Upset Reigning Champsby Paul DeAngelis September 18, 2019 0 comments
SSC Napoli squared off against Liverpool on Tuesday in perhaps the most anticipated matchup of the first matchday of the 2019-20 UEFA Champions League. These two teams met in last year’s competition, in which they traded 1-0 home victories. Despite both teams having the same number of points, the same head-to-head record, and the same goal differential, Liverpool eliminated Napoli in the group stages due to a plus-two goal differential and eventually won the entire competition.
The Reds would face a tough first test in their quest for a repeat. They were thrashed by Napoli 3-0 in a friendly less than two months earlier and were tasked with playing away at the Stadio San Paolo, one of Europe’s most intimidating stadiums.
Although Liverpool was seen as slight favorites, the teams match up well against each other. Both clubs are led by elite coaches, Carlo Ancelotti for Napoli and Jurgen Klopp for Liverpool, and both have arguably the two best defenders in the world, Napoli’s Kalidou Koulibaly, and Liverpool’s Virgil Van Dijk. The two sides are quick and explosive offensively and are known as some of the highest-scoring teams in their respective leagues.
The Italian side, looking for revenge after last year’s early exit, started with early pressure. Liverpool back up goalie Adrian was given the start with Alisson, their starter, still injured. Adrian was called into action early, saving two consecutive strikes from Napoli midfielder Fabian Ruiz within the first 10 minutes. New Napoli signing Hirving “Chucky” Lozano headed Ruiz’s rebound in from short range but was ruled offsides.
Mohamed Salah, Liverpool’s dangerous forward, was limited to occasional counter-attacks early on, with Napoli controlling the possession. He was kept in check by Koulibaly and Napoli left back Mario Rui who frustrated Salah with constant pressure and strong tackles.
Liverpool settled into the game as the half carried on and worked to win the ball back by pressuring Napoli high up the field. This resulted in Napoli captain Lorenzo Insigne giving the ball away and sparking a Liverpool attack. Young goalkeeper Alex Meret, who was playing in his first Champions League match, came through for Napoli with a good save on Liverpool winger Sadio Mane’s effort. Napoli continued to hold more possession and generate more chances but came up empty-handed. Lozano, Insigne, and other forward Dries Mertens couldn’t seem to break down the Liverpool defense led by Van Dijk, Joel Matip, Andrew Robertson, and Trent Alexander-Arnold.
Before halftime, Liverpool saw their best scoring chances so far. Rui made a great sliding clearance on a dangerous cross, and Liverpool striker Roberto Firmino missed an unmarked header off of the ensuing corner kick by inches. The half ended 0-0.
Napoli picked up where they left off in the second half. Minutes in, Rui sent in a beautiful back post cross towards Mertens whose close-range volley was miraculously saved by an outstretched Adrian. Liverpool continued to counter-attack and missed an incredible two-on-one opportunity when Mane’s pass to Salah was too long.
Midway through the second half, Liverpool started to take control of play. After an awful miss kick from Napoli defender Kostas Manolas deep in his own zone, Salah was given a perfect opportunity to give his team the lead. However, his curling shot was turned aside brilliantly by a diving Meret. Suddenly, Liverpool was controlling the play, and a tired Napoli began to counterattack. Just as Liverpool did in the first half, Napoli’s defense held firm. Napoli’s Giovanni Di Lorenzo was specifically effective in stopping Liverpool rushes and turning them into counter-attacks.
With 10 minutes of regular time remaining, a Napoli counter-attack turned out to be the breakthrough. Midfielder Jose Callejón was taken down in the box by a clumsy tackle by Robertson. Two minutes later a powerful penalty from Dries Mertens stung the gloves of Adrian but crept into the bottom left corner giving Napoli a 1-0 lead.
For the remainder of the game, a shell shocked and discombobulated Liverpool were unable to string any form of attack. Napoli took advantage sealed the game in injury time. Van Dijk’s careless back pass was pounced on by Napoli substitute striker Fernando Llorente who easily placed the ball in the back of the net, ensuring a 2-0 victory for the home club.
This was undoubtedly an enormous win for Napoli and was Liverpool’s first competitive loss of the 2019-20 season. Napoli aims to continue their winning ways away against Genk in two weeks, while the reigning champions will attempt to bounce back with a win at home versus Red Bull Salzburg on the same day.