Liverpool learned they were not perfect in a pair of matches against Chelsea last week, and they look to apply those lessons to maintain a 100 percent record in Champions League play Wednesday when they face Napoli at Stadio San Paolo.
POTENTIAL STARTING XIs
Liverpool’s run of seven wins in as many matches that included a wild 3-2 win over Paris-St. Germain to open their Champions League campaign came to an end with a pulsating 2-1 loss at home to Chelsea in the Carabao Cup despite the teams playing largely overturned sides. The match was decided on a moment of individual brilliance by Eden Hazard late in the contest in which he danced through half of Liverpool’s defence.
The return encounter at Stamford Bridge, played with their full first-choice lineups, was of high calibre play throughout the pitch. Like the previous match, it turned on a moment of individual brilliance, but it belonged to a Liverpool player as substitute Daniel Sturridge belted a world-class left-footed goal from 25 yards that found the absolute perfect spot of space beyond the reach of Chelsea keeper Kepa Arrizabalaga and the upper right corner on 89 minutes to give the Merseysiders a 1-1 draw to remain level with Premier League leaders Manchester City on points.
Since Liverpool play the reigning champions Sunday — the first match between the sides since the Reds swept City aside in two legs of the Champions League quarterfinals last term — manager Jurgen Klopp considered making some changes, but he also has no injury concerns heading into this contest.
“It’s no problem. It’s really difficult to think about anything other than the next game – we only think about the next game, but not the next game after the next game! It is always like this,” Klopp explained to Liverpoolfc.com during the team flight. “In the moment it is all fine and we have to use it. We will see, maybe we will make one or two changes or whatever – maybe more – but it’s all about this game. It’s the only way I understand it.
“We are in good shape, we have good rhythm and that’s something we have to use so let’s try our best. It’s not that you can say, ‘OK, Champions League in Naples, I will make five or six changes’ and then for City you make six changes again, then who are the other six because the six that played already, they cannot play on Sunday… it’s difficult really. We will think about this game and then we will see who we can use for City.”
One of the few potential changes that Klopp could make is to give Dejan Lovren his second start of the season after the Croatia international made his debut in the Carabao Cup loss to Chelsea. He was allowed to rehab a muscle injury conservatively following the World Cup as Joe Gomez — the centre back he would conceivably replace in such a swap — formed a solid partnership with Virgil van Dijk.
While Sturridge will not displace the trio of Mohamed Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane, he likely has moved ahead of Xherdan Shaqiri in the pecking order as first-choice substitute with three goals in his last four matches.
“I don’t know what he did in his pre-season but he was quite fit, and during the season he just showed he is really important for us, not only because of his goals but also the way he is playing,” Liverpool midfielder Georginio Wijnaldum said at Tuesday’s news conference. “Against Paris Saint-Germain, we saw Sturridge playing in a way we didn’t see before, defending, [and] he switched positions with one of the front three and did their job. He is really, really good in shape, fit, in form and I think he deserves to be in the England squad.”
While Liverpool have mainly found success, Napoli are still transitioning to life under well-traveled manager Carlo Ancelotti, who replaced Maurizio Sarri after he departed for Chelsea and is no stranger to the pressure-cooker of Champions League life.
The Little Donkeys again are emerging as the primary threat to Juventus’ hegemony in Serie A, trailing the hard-charging and perfect Biaconeri by six points through the first seven matches. The teams had their first meeting in Turin on Saturday, and after Dries Mertens staked Napoli to an early lead in the 10th minute, Cristiano Ronaldo had his biggest impact in domestic play since signing from Real Madrid in the offseason, assisting on a pair of goals as Mario Mandzukic had a brace and consigned Napoli to a 3-1 defeat.
The loss ended a four-match unbeaten streak in all competitions, including a 0-0 draw at Red Star Belgrade a fortnight ago that opened their Champions League adventure, but Ancelotti insisted a failure to get a result here would not doom his side despite the obvious quality in opposition looming as they play PSG in their next two continental matches.
“It’s an important game, but not decisive,” he said at Tuesday’s press conference. “It would be massive for us to get the three points because we weren’t able to get them against Red Star. It’s always nice to play in these games – football is about these exciting matches. We need to be focused but also maintain a level of calm so that we can showcase our qualities.”
“We need to improve the way we handle periods when we’re under pressure. We needed to do that better against Juventus and we hope to improve on that tomorrow.”
The Little Donkeys will have their full attacking contingent at the ready with Mertens and Lorenzo Insigne leading the line, backed by talented midfielders Marek Hamsik and Piotr Zielinski on the left. Insigne has a team-high five goals, while Arkadiusz Milik will serve as supersub with three markers of his own.
Liverpool will be shooting at a familiar face in goal for Napoli as former Arsenal No. 2 David Ospina will be between the sticks as the Colombia international was sent out on loan after the Gunners acquired Bernd Leno in the summer.
Per Ladbrokes, Liverpool are solid favourites to return to England with three points at 11/10 odds, with hosts Napoli checking in at 23/10. The odds of the teams splitting the points are slightly longer at 5/2.
A Reds win with more than 2.5 goals is the top option for punters with 21/10 odds, while Napoli’s odds for a win over that mark rank second at 4/1. Liverpool, who have shown themselves capable of defending well, are also 9/2 favourites to win a 1-0 or 2-0 match, and a 0-0 or 1-1 draw returns 9/5 odds. A win by the Little Donkeys of either 1-0 or 2-0 is a 7/1 longshot, while a 2-2 draw or higher is 9/1.
Salah is the unsurprising leader for first goal-scorer options at 7/2, with Sturridge’s recent purple patch vaulting him into second at 5/1 to make it 1-0. Firmino is right behind him at 11/2, while Napoli’s pair of Mertens and Milik are 6/1 along with Mane. Insigne is another half-step back at 13/2 to give the hosts a 1-0 advantage.
The Egypt international is nearly even money to find the back of the net during this contest at 6/5, again leading the line, while Sturridge (13/8) and Firmino (15/8) round out the top three. The three M’s — Mertens, Milik and Mane — are all 2/1 picks to get on the scoresheet, with Hamsik a sleeper option for Napoli at 13/5.
It’s not often that a Champions League tie can be referred to as a “trap game,” yet many can look at this match as exactly that given what is at stake this weekend for Liverpool as they host Manchester City in a top-of-the-table clash Sunday. This is a result Klopp “would like” to have. It’s not a must-win, but a road point is a nice consolation prize ahead of back-to-back matches against Red Star, who are considered the weakest link of this group.
The only point of contention for Liverpool is what to do with Lovren, who while close to 100 percent, is probably not quite there with only two weeks of full-time practice under his belt. He made the trip to Naples, but until Gomez does something so awful it warrants a benching — unlikely considering he has yet to be on the losing side of a continental match through nine appearances — the Croatian may be waiting a little longer.
Napoli have a tough bounce-back challenge on their hands after their loss to Juventus. Ancelotti is right in the sense a loss would not end their hopes of getting out of the group, but it would be far better to scrape out a point in this match and then take their chances in the home-and-away versus PSG.
Insigne has thrived in his new role underneath Mertens, but Napoli’s defence will be under scrutiny, especially on the left side with Mario Rui and Kalidou Koulabily, the former of whom was sent off before the hour with the outcome still up for grabs after a second booking. Rui is available for this contest, but if Salah is in the mood, he could give the left back a torrid time.
Ospina is also an X-factor who cannot be ignored, though it is for the wrong reasons. He has a lifetime record of 5-3-6 in Champions League play and has let in 28 goals in 15 matches. He recorded only his fourth shutout in the draw versus Red Star and has conceded two or more goals in eight of those 15 contests. Ospina has faced Liverpool just once in his career, allowing a meaningless penalty to Jordan Henderson in a 4-1 Arsenal victory in the 2014/15 season.
Of the 12 players who wore a Liverpool shirt in that match only Henderson and Sturridge are on the current side.
If Napoli can find an early goal and make Liverpool chase the match, they should be able to grab at least one point from this contest. But after a trying week versus Chelsea, it would not be surprising to see Klopp’s team open the throttle and try to run the Little Donkeys off the pitch.
PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Napoli 0, LIVERPOOL 2.