For the opening hour at Anfield the Napoli players must have been tempted to wonder, once again, what exactly all the fuss is around here. Take to the field expecting the red swarm, the hammers of the Premier League, a process of extreme thrash‑metal disintegration. And what do you get?
Not quite that, it turns out. Napoli have done this four times now in two years. In the first half they had the Premier League leaders pinned, rhythms stilled by the swarm of light-blue shirts around their usual passing triangles. It took Liverpool 35 minutes to muster their first effort on target. Ten minutes later the players walked off at the interval looking a little baffled, the crowd silenced, air sucked out of this tight corrugated arena.
You can’t kill the spirit and Jürgen Klopp’s team duly rallied. Jordan Henderson – who had another driving game – switched to right-back. The gears began to crunch, the engine to turn. Dejan Lovren’s header from a James Milner corner levelled the score at 1-1, as it would stay. At the end of which Liverpool need a point in Salzburg to progress, no mean feat against a fizzy, peppy, caffeinated young team. Of equal concern for Klopp will be the loss of an opportunity to rest players in a fortnight’s time.
What is it with these blue shirts? When it comes to Liverpool, Napoli just seem to know something other teams don’t. They seem to know they’re playing Joe Gomez and James Milner, not some brain‑mangling red swarm, to know that winning chemistry can be broken down.
The essence of Klopp’s achievement has been to make these components coalesce and work as a single high-functioning unit, driving a disparate set of players on to become the best club side in the world. Alone among their regular opponents, Napoli seem to have the ability to swish back the curtain and expose the parts.
Klopp played a strong team here. Only Georginio Wijnaldum and Trent Alexander-Arnold were rested. At kick-off the Kop end was the usual fond, warm pageantry of flags and scarves and banners, with that strange kind of electricity that seems to thicken the air a little on nights like these.
But there were misfires and missed beats from the start. Napoli left no space, no angles to make those killer diagonal passes. There was no room in that low blue block for the front three to create the usual whirl of movement.
Probably Liverpool were due a game like this. Some of the players had begun to look a little tired. The loss of Fabinho with a foot injury after 20 minutes disrupted the flow. They also missed their playmaker here. Without Alexander‑Arnold the flatness of the midfield is suddenly an issue. There is no comparison withGomez on the right flank, a converted centre-half who looked like one here, slowing the play on his side of the pitch like the squeaky wheel on a wonky supermarket trolley.
Plus, of course, Napoli are a seriously good team, with a coach in Carlo Ancelotti who knows how to twang away at those tender points in a Klopp team. The opening goal echoed Napoli’s success down the flanks in their 2-0 win in Naples.
As Liverpool pressed high the ball was turned over and Giovanni Di Lorenzo lofted a pass in behind Andy Robertson. Dries Mertens was ready, haring off alone into all that green space. He let the ball bounce, let it bounce again and then smashed a thrilling low shot across Alisson and into the far corner.
Premier League teams really could do a lot worse than study the tapes of these 180 Champions League minutes. It’s a simple plan. Defend deep, break quickly, look for the long pass in behind the full-backs. Above all, don’t see red-shirted furies in front of you. Napoli’s players were calm, stayed compact and saved their adrenaline. It helps, of course, if you can defend like an Italian team. Spurs tried something here and were eaten alive.
When in doubt, send for more Henderson. Just past the hour mark Klopp removed Gomez, put the captain at right-back and almost instantly the game changed. Liverpool began to crank up through the higher registers, to switch the ball from side to side with some of that familiar disorientating vim.
The goal was coming: it duly arrived on 65 minutes. And for a while as Liverpool’s fans absorbed the sense of resale, scarves twirling, this was a beautiful sporting spectacle, the players moving as blocks of blue and red under those brilliant white lights. Liverpool had done it again, wearing their opponents down relentlessly. But Napoli gave them plenty to ponder; not to mention a lesson – who knows – for the rest of the league in how to resist that rising tide.