Napoli hands Liverpool CL another defeat
For the second season in a row, Jurgen Klopp’s side leave Stadio San Paolo with a Champions League group stage defeat. They won’t want to return in a hurry. This year, as last, they ended up on the wrong end of a tight game, though this time the loss was 2-0 rather than 1-0.
If the Reds have a bogey team, it’s Carlo Ancelotti’s men, who have now recorded three wins against them in the space of 11 months.
Dries Mertens’ late penalty, awarded after Andy Robertson was adjudged to have fouled Jose Callejon, and a stoppage-time strike from former Tottenham striker Fernando Llorente, condemned them here.
It wasn’t as late a blow as last year, when Lorenzo Insigne scored in the final minutes, but that will be of little consolation to the European champions, who will feel they merited at least a point from an absorbing contest.
Klopp doesn’t like losing, and his players are not used to it. This was only the second time they had been beaten in 90 minutes since January, and though it need not be fatal in the context of the group, the manner of it will have stung.
Klopp was angered by the penalty award – “clear and obvious not a penalty,” he said, and he would ask for a show of hands as to who thought differently in his post-match press conference. When one Italian suggested it was a fair decision, Klopp replied “we both have glasses, but mine have the right prescription!”
Liverpool were better here than they were last October, when they could barely string three passes together. They didn’t manage a shot on target that night, but they were more threatening here. Had it not been for one over-hit pass from Sadio Mane and one marvellous save from Alex Meret, the Napoli goalkeeper, the visitors may well have left Italy with the spoils.
Liverpool had their own superhero in goal, mind. Adrian, the stand-in for the brilliant Alisson Becker, produced one of the best saves you could wish to see to deny Mertens early in the second half. The Belgian, though, would have the last laugh.
Klopp has solved most puzzles in his time at Anfield, but one remains. How does he get this team to win Champions League group matches away from home?
This was the seventh his side have played, and they have won only one. They lost all three last season, including here, scraping into the last 16 courtesy of their imperious home form.
For 45 minutes, there was not too much wrong with their performance. They pressed intelligently, they threatened on the break and they bossed the midfield, with Fabinho in particular producing a magnificent first half.
The final ball, though, was lacking. Mane was denied by Meret, Mo Salah buzzed but couldn’t find an end product. Napoli defended stoutly and gave their fans reason to stay with them as the game wore on.
“It should hurt because there were opportunities for us,” said Klopp afterwards. “It was an open game with a lot of counter attacks, but we didn’t finish them off and that is a problem.”
Liverpool dropped off after the break, the home side exploiting the gaps which appeared as a result. “It was a wild game,” Klopp said. “We were running and they were running.”
Adrian’s incredible one-handed save from Mertens preserved parity, while Meret was equally brilliant at the other end to deny Salah. When Mane broke through two-on-one, he looked for Salah. The pass was over-hit. Maybe he could have been more selfish?
The drama was saved for the final eight minutes, Robertson dangling a leg in the box to allow Callejon to tumble.
Mertens did the rest, then Llorente, beaten by Liverpool in last year’s final, exacted some revenge with a last-gasp clincher following a rare Virgil van Dijk error. Disappointment for Klopp, for the 1000-or-so travelling Kopites, who did what they could too make themselves heard.
Disappointment too for Adrian. He, of all people, deserved better.