It may not matter much in terms of table placement in Champions League Group A, but Liverpool have managed to get Napoli back (to an extent) for the embarrassment the Serie A side inflicted on them at the Diego Armando Maradona stadium early in the campaign. On Tuesday evening at Anfield, theb Merseysiders saw Napoli off with a 2-0 victory, courtesy of late goals from Mohamed Salah and Darwin Nunez.
A game of top teams
With Liverpool playing much better than in recent Premier League matches, this truly was a contest of two teams of the highest quality. The hosts won on the evening, but it could have easily ended differently had luck wanted it the other way.
Even though the game couldn’t really change much unless Liverpool won by four or more goals, which was never likely to happen, both teams went into the contest with everything they had. They may have big domestic clashes coming at the end of the week, particularly Napoli, but neither Spalletti nor Jurgen Klopp wanted to rest too many players.
Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp deployed his team in what mostly looked like a 4-4-2 diamond formation, with Curtis Jones playing closest to Roberto Firmino and Salah upfront, while James Milner and Thiago Alcantara covered the sides and Fabinho sat at the base, just ahead of the back line consisting of Virgil van Dijk, Ibrahima Konate, Trent Alexander-Arnold and Kostas Tsimikas. Andy Robertson was left on the bench, as was Nunez.
For Napoli, the system was a classic 4-3-3 with Victor Osimhen leading the line, flanked by Khvicha Kvaratskhelia and Matteo Politano. Stanislav Lobotka anchored the midfield, with Andre Zambo Anguissa and Tanguy Ndombele covering the box-to-box roles. At the back, Leo Ostigard paired up with Kim Min-jae, while Mathias Olivera played on the left and captain Giovanni Di Lorenzo on the right.
Statistically, Liverpool just outperformed Napoli, with 53% possession and a total of 14 shots, while Luciano Spalletti’s men took 10. It was the Reds who charged forward from the first whistle and came close to taking the lead through Jones in the fifth minute, but the visitors quickly raised their level to establish fine balance on the pitch and occasionally threatened at the other end. Kvaratskhelia, so deadly this season on Napoli’s left attacking flank, wasn’t quite able to contribute as much as he may have hoped to, with Alexander-Arnold silencing many critics with a fine defensive display alongside the formidable frame of Konate.
Salah looked lively at the other end, but Kim and Olivera were mostly up to the task of keeping the Egyptian as far as possible from Alex Meret’s goal. In the 28th minute, Salah chose not to go for goal himself having seen Thiago approach down the middle and he set the Spaniard up for a shot from around 20 yards, but Meret was alert. In the 42nd, Jones released Salah with a fantastic pass in behind the defence, and Meret was quick off the line to make a fine save just before the linesman’s flag went up.
Napoli actually put the ball in the opposition net first through Ostigard, but what would’ve been a 53rd-minute opener was eventually ruled out by the VAR for a rather narrow offside position of the Norwegian defender as Kvaratskhelia whipped in a cross from a free-kick on the left. It was a moment of notable luck for Liverpool, as there was probably no more than a couple of inches in it and the linesman certainly couldn’t be blamed for not getting it right.
Salah failed to score for Liverpool in the 81st minute as he diverted an Alexander-Arnold ball on target and forced Meret into another save, but the Napoli goalkeeper was powerless to stop Salah from getting the ball across the goal-line four minutes later after he did well enough to save a powerful header from Nunez, who had replaced Jones earlier.
Napoli, of course, went in search of a late equalizer from that point on, but the disappointment being visible in their eyes, they always seemed more likely to concede a second goal, which they did in the end. It was literally the last action of the match, right at the end of a seven-minute stoppage time, when Meret saved a Virgil van Dijk header only to see Nunez put the rebound in. The linesman initially ruled the Uruguayan striker offside, but the VAR came into operation once more and after a lengthy check, the goal was allowed to stand.
Despite the defeat, the first of the season in any competition, Napoli have finished top of the group and will therefore have a more favourable draw for the round of 16 than Liverpool, at least on paper. Both teams picked up 15 points from six games, losing only to each other.
Now they can turn to their domestic affairs, where Napoli face second-place Atalanta in the Serie A on Saturday, and a win would see them go at least six points clear at the top of the table. Liverpool will travel to North London to face Tottenham Hotspur, and sitting ninth in the Premier League at the moment, they desperately need all the points they can get to move up. Klopp will, however, be aware that getting anything from that match won’t be an easy task.
The former Benfica striker spent a total of 24 minutes on the pitch, the long stoppage time included. In that time, he managed to hit the target with a fine header which preceded Salah’s opener, to almost assist the Egyptian for a second goal, to pick up a yellow card for a needless grapple with Giacomo Raspadori, and finally, to score the second goal himself with the last kick of the match.
It was obviously quite a notable cameo for the 24-year-old, who has been a much-debated signing for Liverpool having cost the Merseysiders up to £85 million with add-ons. Full of temper but also of talent, capable of missing sitters but also of scoring stunners, Nunez could obviously go on to be the new Luis Suarez for Liverpool, but he could also go on to become a new Mario Balotelli if he doesn’t improve on a couple of aspects of his game.
As the red card he picked up against Crystal Palace early in the season showed, he needs to learn to control that temper of his, though it has to be said that he’s been doing fine in that since the incident. He also needs to improve his decision making in the final third, as well as work on composure to start putting clear-cut chances away without much fuss.
Interestingly enough, only Manchester City star Erling Haaland, Spurs’ Harry Kane and Fulham’s Aleksandar Mitrovic have a better minutes-per-goal ratio than Nunez in the Premier League this season. Take penalties away, and it’s only Haaland.
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