Assi di Coppe: A Tale of Two Napolis In Liverpool

The story of Napoli this season so far has been somewhat intriguing and difficult to comprehend.

In the domestic league, they are currently 7th in the table, unable to win against sides battling for survival like SPAL and Genoa. In Champions League, however, they are a different team. And what better way to evaluate a team’s ability in Europe than make it play against what is currently the best lineup in the continent, and probably in the world: Liverpool.

On Wednesday, Napoli went tooth and nail against the European Champions. It was as if a different team than the one which struggles week-in, week-out in Serie A was playing last night. Kalidou Koulibaly returned to his old self, the defender who could block everything and everyone who tried to come near him. Allan Marques provided defensive coverage for his fellow teammates, and Dries Mertens tried to take advantage of any possible counter-attacks that might result in a crucial goal for the Partenopei.

Coach Carlo Ancelotti of Napoli was without the services of his captain Lorenzo Insigne, who didn’t travel with the team to Liverpool because of an injury. Therefore, the Italian master-tactician had to alter his formation accordingly.

The first big moment of the match came at the 19th minute, when Brazilian Fabinho of Liverpool was taken off due to an injury. The former Sevilla and Real Madrid midfielder is a key element in Jurgen Klopp’s puzzle on the field. He helps orchestrating attacks from the back and is an anchor point who can both break down the opponents’ attacks and recover the ball from them.

In fact, only two minutes after his substitution, Napoli scored an extremely controversial opening goal of the night. Giovanni di Lorenzo played an clever move to put teammate Dries Mertens all alone in front of opponent goalkeeper Alisson Becker. The Belgian remained calm under pressure and squeezed his shot past the Brazilian to give the lead to the Southern Italy club.

However, Mertens’ actions before the goal became the center of attention for Liverpool and the Video Assistant Referee (VAR) system, as the Neapolitan seemed to give a little nudge to Liverpool defender Virgil Van Dijk before heading off to score the goal. On top of that, the VAR also checked for an alleged offside position when the ball was served to Di Lorenzo. But both claims were disallowed  and Napoli could finally celebrate their goal.

From then on, much of the play was concentrated in Napoli’s half of the pitch, as Liverpool mounted the pressure to try and get an equalizer. Visitor goalie Alex Meret showed his worth with some vital saves as shots Sadio Mane, James Milner, Roberto Firmino and Mohammad Salah came raining down on him.

Napoli’s defensive code was eventually deciphered 20 minutes into the second half, with Mertens again involved in the goal. For some reason, the little Belgian found himself guarding big Liverpool defender Dejan Lovren. The Croatian rose high above him and nodded in a header that left Meret nailed to his place in the middle of the goal as he watched the ball go into the top right corner.

Dejan Lovren towered over Dries Mertens to score Liverpool’s equalizer. Surely the small-sized Belgian striker wasn’t the most apt to mark the gigantic Croatian defender…

At that point, it would have been easy to imagine that the game was over and Liverpool would go on to make it two and make full score, just as they did so many times in the Premier League this season. However, the Partenopei managed to hold the mighty European champions off and forced them to a draw which left the Italians surely happier than the Englishmen.

Those who watched Napoli last night couldn’t believe that this team is sitting only 7th in the Serie A table. It has been a little over a month now since the Partenopei’s last win in all competitions. Domestically, Napoli are facing a crisis, and Ancelotti needs to find solutions quickly if he wants to avoid President Aurelio Di Laurentiis calling him to give him the sack.

In Europe, however, the team played twice against the defending European Champions and came out with a one win and one draw. Not bad for a team living in a crisis.

Napoli now sit second in Group E with nine points, just one behind leading Liverpool. In a fortnight, they will face bottom-placed Genk – which have only gathered one point in five matches – at the San Paolo Stadium for their last group stage match. A win would guarantee them the qualification to the Round of 16. Should they draw or lose, they will need to pray for Red Bull Salzburg not to come out as winner from their last game against Liverpool.

President Aurelio De Laurentiis tweeted after yesterday’s match:

“Now all with heads down to work hard and consider that all the next games are as if they are all against Liverpool. We shouldn’t talk today about corporate measures with the players. We will solve these events between us without external pressure or conditionings.”

Easier said than done, Mr. President.

We will see on Sunday whether Napoli play like they did against Liverpool as they host Bologna in their next Serie A test.


November 27, 2019 – Champions League 2019-20 Group E

SCORERS: 21′ Mertens (N), 65′ Lovren (L)

LIVERPOOL (4-3-3): Alisson; Gomez (57′ Oxlade-Chamberlain), Lovren, Van Dijk, Robertson; Henderson, Fabinho (19′ Wijnaldum), Milner (78′ Alexander-Arnold); Mané, Firmino, Salah (Adrian, Lallana, Shaqiri, Origi) Coach: Klopp
NAPOLI (4-4-2): Meret; Maksimovic, Manolas, Koulibaly, Mario Rui; Di Lorenzo, Allan, Zielinski (85′ Younes), Fabian Ruiz; Mertens (81′ Elmas), Lozano (72′ Llorente) (Ospina, Luperto, Gaetano, Callejon, Amin) Coach: Ancelotti

REFEREE: Del Cerro Grande (Spain)
NOTES: Yellow Cards: Robertson, Klopp (L), Koulibaly, Allan (N); Extra Time: 1st Half 4′, 2nd Half 0′