Going into the crunch Group C finale at Anfield on Tuesday, 11 December, both Liverpool and Napoli wanted one thing – a place in the UEFA Champions League knockout stages. The ways to get there could have been entirely different.
Napoli could’ve lost and still made it through, as long as they scored and didn’t lose by more than a goal. Virtually any result would’ve done for them if PSG were to not win against Red Star Belgrade. For the Reds, the equation was much tougher – win at all costs, with the knowledge that a margin of victory lesser than two goals if Napoli were to score, coupled with a PSG win, would see the effort go in vain.
The stakes made clear, here’s how Liverpool, eventually, went all in – and won big.
Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino – there isn’t much more you can ask for when it comes to an attacking triad. Liverpool’s big three did deliver on Tuesday night – but somehow simultaneously nearly shot themselves in the foot.
In the first half, Salah was slick in turning past Koulibaly for his first and the game’s only goal. Firmino sat deep, playing a vaguely Messi-esque role (excluding all of Messi’s dribbling and long passing), where he built up from deep and ran a lot, playing not at all like a traditional number nine. Mane was clearly not his usual self but was aware of this, often letting his fellow attackers lead the way.
However, Liverpool should have definitely scored more goals, and Salah will be disappointed to not get a second hat-trick in four days.
Still, offensively, the Reds were far superior to Napoli. The fact that Salah had more touches than Lorenzo Insigne and Dries Mertens, Napoli’s front two, combined speaks volumes of how the game was contested.
The attack was a little over the place for Carlo Ancelotti’s Italians, and seemingly nerved by Liverpool’s pressing, Napoli’s front line often squandered possession away. Opportunities to shoot were few and far between – evidenced by Liverpool center-back Virgil van Dijk having as many shots as Insigne and Mertens combined.
Much of the attacking play on display through the night was down to the wings. Napoli left-back Mario Rui was promising in the early stages of the encounter, creating space and even delivering a few in. But as the match moved on, he looked more likely to be sent off than he looked to be delivering a good cross.
On a particularly quiet night for Mertens and Insigne, had Rui held his form throughout the match, he might have perked them up and even created a goal.
The real stars bombarding the flanks, however, were Liverpool’s young pairing of Andy Robertson and Trent Alexander Arnold.
Robertson floated around Liverpool’s defence and repeatedly sprinted down his wing – with the ball in attack, and without it while nullifying the opposition. On the counter, he looked composed and always had one eye up for the pass. Even though it seemed as though Liverpool would be caught on the break without him, he was always back in time.
On the other flank was Trent Alexander Arnold, Liverpool local hero and easily their most potent attacking threat from the right. He provided more defensive stability than his counterpart down the left wing, making more tackles than anybody (seven) and executing each one of Liverpool’s five successful crosses on the night.
In what was an under-par performance by Napoli, one star shone brighter than most. Kalidou Koulibaly was a beast, showing once again why many bet on him to become the first ever $100 million defender – this even as Manchester United fans beg chief executive Ed Woodward to bring him to the club.
He bodied people better than most, making five blocks and seven clearances. The one time the Senegalese 27-year-old faltered, it proved fatal – but that Salah scored just that once, and not the Reds were limited to one goal, was down to Koulibaly keeping the Egyptian at bay.
Speaking of Salah, the attacker continued his great run of form as he added to his hat-trick against Bournemouth on Saturday, 8 December, with a goal that was probably worth more than all those three combined. Several times, he tried to spin past Koulibaly, but despite being denied repeatedly, he didn’t give up, and we all know what happened the one time he did go past the Senegalese.
The immense contributions of Robertson and Alexander Arnold have already been alluded to. Without Robertson’s agility and TAA’s pin-point crossing, the 22 shots taken by Liverpool would have been a much lower number.
One performance that may have slipped off the radar was that of Allan in the Napoli mid-field. The promising young Brazilian made 14 tackles and completed four dribbles. Not amazing numbers, but had Napoli stayed alive in the competition, his name would have been on many more minds.
One other Brazil did etch himself into the thoughts of all watching, with one moment of brilliance right at the end of the contest. In the second minute of stoppage time, Alisson Becker pulled off a superb reflex save to deny Napoli substitute Arkadiusz Milik an equaliser, and single-handedly – literally – kept last season’s runners-up alive in the tournament.
Confidence – or a Lack of It
While most of these points explain how Liverpool won, there is a common factor you may have missed. With Napoli needing only a draw to go through, you would assume they would play with a lot of confidence. Similarly, with Liverpool knowing that conceding a goal would make their task all-the-more herculean, you could have imagined the Merseysiders cutting a wary figure.
But the match unfolded in an entirely opposite manner.
As Andy Robertson hared down the wing with the ball, ready to take on anybody, Mario Rui, a player fully capable of doing the same, gave up after a few failed attempts. Dries Mertens, a player known for delivering well-timed passes, stuck to playing the ball sideways, even as Salah attempted one daring pass after another despite most failing to find their target.
Marek Hamsik, more than capable of an edge-of-the-box screamer, stopped after just one long-range attempt, while Georginio Wijnaldum attempted four of the same despite finding the target just once.
What I’m trying to say is that Liverpool players played with a certain edge, a daring sense of initiative that allowed them to practice their kind of football best, with each player trying his luck at a variety of things. Napoli on the other hand, were wary, cautious, afraid of what might happen if they failed. Had the players from Naples played with a little more confidence – and to their potential – who knows what the score line would have read?
(The author is a school student who follows football, when he’s not finishing his homework. On a side note, he also answers to the name ‘Pele’ after his mother nicknamed him that for troubling her a bit much from the womb.)
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