Liverpool crushed by rampant Napoli in Champions League opener

Mohamed Salah looks on as Napoli celebrate

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As Thomas Tuchel can testify, this was an awful day for Champions League-winning German managers. If Barcelona ranks as Liverpool’s finest and famous European game under Jurgen Klopp, this was surely the worst and the most worrying. Liverpool have touched greatness at times in continental competitions in his reign, but they were gruesome as they were garrotted by Luciano Spalletti’s inspired Napoli team. It is a hat-trick of defeats in Naples in the Klopp era, but this was the heaviest and the most harrowing. Unlike the previous two, this seemed to highlight deeper problems.

There was Liverpool’s now trademark slow start but without the salvation of improvement thereafter. There were a collection of errors, with a shambolic defence found glaringly wanting while the lack of a functioning midfield compounded their problems. There were individual errors and a lack of cohesion among the collective. The side Klopp famously christened ‘mentality monsters’ looked lacking in spirit. Only Luis Diaz, who mounted a one-man attempt at an unlikely rescue job, should escape censure.

In the broader picture, Liverpool have twice lost in Naples before and qualified from Champions League groups but they scarcely resembled the side who almost completed a clean sweep of trophies last season. They were ramshackle and ragged. Four goals could have been seven. Not because of the number of chances as their clarity. There was a shot that hit the woodwork, a missed penalty and a goal-line clearance. Liverpool are rarely opened up as often, as easily; at times, as embarrassingly. Whether Virgil van Dijk or Joe Gomez, James Milner or Trent Alexander-Arnold, this was a terrible night for players who have produced far better time and again.

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But Napoli were outstanding. Khvicha Kvaratskhelia’s mazy dribbling illustrated why he has been nicknamed ‘Kvaradona’. Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa is much more than a player who failed at Fulham and brought the flair and the deftness to suggest he belongs on such a stage. Piotr Zielinski scored twice and seemed ubiquitous; he is a former Liverpool target and how their midfield could have benefited from a creator of his calibre.

Ahead of each, Victor Osimhen’s involvement only spanned 40 minutes, included a missed penalty and what could harshly be described as a failure to find an unguarded net, but he was electric. He excelled at exposing a high defensive line. He pounced when they were dozy, as they were all too often.

Napoli’s Piotr Zielinski scores from the penalty spot

Napoli’s excellence meant they had scant reason to rue the reprieves they granted Liverpool. After 43 seconds, Osimhen had struck the post, rounding Alisson but failing to convert from an acute angle. He was culpable again from the spot in a tale of two penalties and two penalty takers. Indeed, there were two offences that may have escaped detection. Referee Carlos del Cerro Grande was among the few to realise Zielinski’s shot was deflected wide by Milner’s arm. The Pole converted the spot kick.

Yet a policy of letting the player who won it, take it backfired 13 minutes late. Del Cerro Grande initially missed Van Dijk treading on Osimhen’s foot as the Nigerian sped in behind Liverpool’s defence. A VAR review later and Osimhen had taken over from Zielinski on spot-kick duties. He only mustered a tame effort Alisson palmed away. One Alisson save against Napoli, in December 2018, has gone down in Liverpool folklore after they went on to win the competition. This was relegated to a footnote amid the ineptitude and the ignominy.

Liverpool mustered another escape before Napoli’s pressure told and their own errors caught up with them. Van Dijk cleared Kvaratskhelia’s shot off the line after Osimhen robbed Gomez and squared selflessly. Nevertheless, Liverpool were outmanoeuvred and opened up again when Zambo Anguissa exchanged passes with Zielinski and strolled through to score his first goal for Napoli.

Gomez was culpable then and again for the third. Osimhen’s exit brought Giovanni Simeone on and the striker’s first touch was to tap in Kvaratskhelia’s enticing low cross. Simeone’s father, Diego, eliminated Liverpool from the Champions League in 2020 and, on the night if not in the competition, this felt a knockout blow.

Zambo Anguissa slides home Napoli’s second goal

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Liverpool’s previous losses in Naples came courtesy of late goals. This time, they conceded early in each half. Two minutes into the second, Alisson parried Zielinski’s low shot, but the midfielder dinked the rebound over the grounded goalkeeper. Gomez had gone off by then, hooked for Joel Matip, so at least this was not his fault.

A four-goal deficit would have equalled Liverpool’s heaviest loss in Europe, 5-1 to Ajax in 1966. Diaz at least averted that dishonour, curling in a shot from 20 yards. It was Liverpool’s first goal away at the Diego Armando Maradona Stadium but the context meant it was scarcely cause for celebration. Goalkeeper Alex Meret had to make a spectacular stop to deny Diaz a second but there was no epic comeback, nor, despite a return to fitness for Thiago Alcantara and a debut for Arthur Melo as substitutes, many glimmers of hope. Just an utterly abject performance to invite questions if this team is capable of great European nights anymore.

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