Liverpool stunned by Napoli as their Champions League title defence begins with defeat

Napoli 2-0 Liverpool: Dries Mertens’ penalty and a late Fernando Llorente goal won the game

Miguel Delaney
San Paolo Stadium
Tuesday 17 September 2019 22:29
Champions League group stage draw

A decisive moment that summed up the game: debatable. Napoli deserved their 2-0 victory to start this Champions League campaign for the will displayed, but Liverpool will look to slack final touches at both ends. This was not just a slow start for the defending European champions, but their most tepid display of the season so far. It was actually a little difficult to square the side that were so luscious in attack against Newcastle United at the weekend with the team so lacking in force at the end here.

This was what led to their undoing, even if some of it was with some mischievous ingenuity from Jose Callejon. Napoli were sharper in those two key moments, more attentive. So when Andy Robertson came in on the forward cleanly but a little clumsily in the 81st minute, Callejon saw his opportunity.

It was much the same for the goal that clinched it. That somehow saw Virgil van Dijk, a defender who has physically dominated most of Europe in the last year, outdone by a striker in Fernando Llorente who is basically at the club because he isn’t quite the physical specimen he was. The striker did get the “revenge” he wanted for Tottenham Hotspur here, but this wasn’t really the same Liverpool that won last season’s Champions League.

That of course isn’t to say there should be any cause for alarm, but it is a bit of a jolt.

It was also just reward for a Napoli who so willingly went at Liverpool from the start, with attacks that ranged from the intricate to the intense. One quick one-touch passing move almost put Dries Mertens through as the Italian side just wondrously weaved their way through the Liverpool backline, one flurry forced Adrian into two quick-fire instant saves from pummelled shots, before a goal was ruled out for offside.

Napoli were intent on starting this group at the right pace, and making the impression. The only issue initially them was that pace, and the high line it necessitated, left an awful lot of space in behind. Mo Salah was only too willing to consume it, and was almost in twice in the opening minutes. He probably should have done better with one early opportunity where a brilliant Jordan Henderson ball put him right in behind Kalidou Koulibaly.

Salah’s final touch – as was the case throughout the team throughout the entire game – was just a little off.

Adrian’s touch, at least, it wasn’t. From that, there was no question about the best moment of the game.

That was the stand-in goalkeeper’s frankly astonishing save from Mertens.

It was one of those where it didn’t quite seem physically possible, and you’re left wondering how it happened.

After the ball had been brilliant clipped in behind the Liverpool backline, Mertens seem to have the goal at his mercy as he volleyed it toward the net. Adrian at once seemed to hang in the air for an age and arrive in the nick of time, as he clasped the ball away with his back-hand.

If all that seems contradictory, that’s why it was so good.It somehow kept Mertens out. Adrian couldn’t keep him out for the penalty, though, despite getting a touch.

Napoli won a controversial penalty

And that was the thing about this match. It was as if Napoli just eventually forced it over the line.

That’s what it came down to.

This is the flip side of being the champions. Opposition sides raise their game for you.

The frustration was that the moment actually came when Napoli had seemed to drastically drop off. It was as if Carlo Ancelotti’s subs had sapped some of his side’s energy, Llorente particularly limiting their movement.

Mertens and Llorente struck for Napoli

Liverpool evidently sensed opportunity to win it, but that just made them even looser at the back.

Callejon took advantage, Llorente later took his opportunity.

Napoli thereby take the initiative, as Liverpool must take stock.

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