Becoming Premier League champions for the first time in thirty years was a massive achievement for Jurgen Klopp, who once promised to land the big prize within four years.
In a repeat of last season’s group fixture, late goals once again helped the Italians defeat Liverpool.
Two goals after the 80th minutes, one from a Dries Merten’s penalty and the second gifted to substitute Fernando Llorente from a Virgil Van Dijk mistake, lifted the Neapolitans over the defending champions.
Unlike last year’s dull and lacklustre affair which wouldn’t be on anyone’s replay list, this match was a neutral’s delight. Jurgen Klopp and Carlos Ancelotti on the opposite dugouts masterminded a well-implemented tactical battle with both sides playing to their strengths — Napoli used quick crossfield switches to create isolation in the flanks and Liverpool relied on turnovers from forward presses to generate their best opportunities.
It wasn’t the result Liverpool was looking for to commence their Champions League title defence. But they should take delight in the drastic lift in competitiveness and dynamism compared to last year’s game, where they barely tested David Ospina’s goal and at times struggled to build short passing sequence.
At this stage, neither side should fret over the prospect of not advancing to the knockout stage given their superior pedigree and talents at their disposal (as a side note, Red Bull Salzburg’s Erling Håland looks like a menace with a hat-trick in the other game in the group).
So here are three talking points from a Liverpool perspective.
1. Too kind from Mane?
Liverpool is a rare beast – a champion team without the inflated egos. But a ‘bust up’ between Sadio Mane and Mo Salah right before the last international break had experts salivating over the endless hours of drama that would ensue. It also had Liverpool fans reassuring themselves it’s much ado about nothing, where elite players are simply showing their over-zealous hunger for success.
The affair was predictably over-dramatised by the media deprived of materials to talk about in the international break. Two matches since the ‘bust up’, Salah and Mane are partnering as well as ever. But there was a moment in the Napoli match that had me wondering whether Mane was overcompensating for his on-field complain of selfishness.
It was a Liverpool counterattack in the 54th min, a two-on-one chance with Mane pushing the ball towards goal and Salah lurking in the back post with only left-back Mario Rui between them. Rather than displaying his usual supreme confidence, Mane played the ball early when he hasn’t attracted Rui’s attention enough to make the pass to Salah easier.
The result was a bad pass which eluded Salah and a golden sure-goal chance was lost.
Hindsight makes every mistake look worse. Looking back at the footage, Mane might have pondered why didn’t he carry the ball for another few yards to further lure Rui into his space before releasing Salah or even just have the shot himself.
Instead, his decision was uncharacteristically safe. It leaves you wondering whether he was eager to avoid being labelled as selfish if he were to take the shot and fail to score.
(After complaining about the media over-analysing the affair, I will admit I am guilty of flaming this fire on as well. It’s much ado about nothing)
2. What is the point of VAR?
The turning point of the match is undoubtedly the penalty award in the 80th minute for an Andy Robertson foul on Jose Callejón. The referee Felix Brych was so sure of his perception that he didn’t even deem this incident worthy of referral to the VAR.
The problem was it didn’t look like a foul in real-time and the slow-motion replays from four different angles reinforced this belief.
If this had occurred in the competition’s last edition, the referee would have spent one minute waiting for the VAR check and another two minutes staring into a tiny screen on the sideline and have an impromptu committee meeting with the VAR referee before coming to a conclusion.
The process was the bane of momentum and crowd involvement.
But it is an even greater injustice to not use it at all.
What is the point of having VAR when an ambiguous play like this doesn’t warrant at least a quick check? VAR is supposed to eliminate controversies. But with the way that it is being implemented, it is the controversy.
3. Progress only from defeat
Liverpool held a perfect record of five from five this season before this match. Those performances were dotted with moments of critical errors which were masked by an arrogant flair knowing they could eventually grind out a win.
The match until the penalty carried a similar vibe to the five league victories in that the Scousers controlled the pace and dictated the style of the match while the opponents were presented chances here and there. The only exception was that Napoli handed Liverpool’s first competitive defeat of the season.
The next day match review will be a fruitful session for Liverpool players and coaching staff. They would learn more from this match than the previous five matches combined.
This season, Liverpool has been doing enough while not being in top gear. This defeat could be the catalyst to a higher gear. And it couldn’t have come at a better time against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge this weekend, a bogey team at a bogey ground.
The last time Liverpool lost a competitive match, so, excluding the Community Shield defeat, they scored four goals against one of the best teams in the world. The bitter taste of defeat could release a furious response this weekend.