Fabinho off injured. Virgil van Dijk receiving a knock to his ribs from Dries Mertens – who then went on to score in the next phase of play after a lovely Giovanni Di Lorenzo ball. Two VAR checks on that goal as well as a yellow card for Jurgen Klopp. And that was only the first-half of Liverpool’s 1-1 draw with Napoli at Anfield.
Napoli arrived on Merseyside in a mess of their internal making that traced back to a 1-1 draw against Red Bull Salzburg at Stadio San Paolo on November 5.
Aurelio De Laurentiis, the club’s owner, had arranged a training camp that the players refused to attend. That was just the start. A dire run of form followed, with Napoli failing to win in six matches, and the future of Carlo Ancelotti suddenly called into question.
Corriere dello Sport termed it ‘ammutinamento’ - mutiny - but there is something about Liverpool that coaxes tactical obedience from Napoli. Aggressive out of possession and a handful with it, they have persistently proved troublesome for the Premier League leaders.
“They are experienced, tactically strong, super players,” Klopp reminded when asked about the opponent’s “civil war” pre-match.
"They are a really good football team and now they're not in Italy, they feel maybe relief they can play in this game. We have to be ready for that.”
Napoli certainly looked a side freed from their woes. Enjoying away comforts they made a bright start here at Anfield and Liverpool’s plan to deal with them was dented early into the match by Fabinho’s 19th-minute withdrawal, with what seemed to be an ankle issue.
Mertens took advantage to open the scoring 120 seconds later - a goal which VAR checked and awarded. There was then another pause as an offside was considered – only for the initial finding to be proven correct.
The hosts were laboured in seeking a strong reaction, with Napoli’s play making them frustrated and occasionally desperate.
But they ended the half stronger, swarming forward and laying siege to Alex Meret’s goal. And the equaliser eventually came after a necessary tactical switch.
Joe Gomez struggled at right-back, short on confidence and not naturally able to offer huge offensive contribution like the rested Trent Alexander-Arnold. So Klopp hooked him early, putting on Alex Oxlade-Chamberlian on 57 minutes and moving Jordan Henderson to right-back.
Liverpool, in control of midfield with Gini Wijnaldum solid, looked more likely to score from that point and duly did when Dejan Lovren towered over Napoli’s rearguard to head in James Milner’s corner.
With ’78 on the clock, Klopp then added Alexander-Arnold to the mix, inviting him to swing crosses into the Napoli box.
Napoli did not have a shot of any kind in the second half, while Liverpool tried to conjure their speciality of a late win.
The game finished with bookings and off-the-ball aggro instead of any fairytale ending, so Group E will go down to the wire as Salzburg host Klopp’s side and Napoli welcome Genk in the final round of fixtures.
Liverpool are odds on to progress with 10 points, one better than Ancelotti’s charges with the Austrian outfit on seven.
They will be glad to see the back of Napoli, their kryptonite, this season.
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