A penalty given up by Andrew Robertson, a sloppy mistake by Virgil van Dijk, of all people. Liverpool became the first European champions to lose their next game out in this competition since AC Milan in 1994.
True, the Milanese went on to the final that year, as did Ajax, the team that beat them. And Liverpool also lost away to Napoli in the group stage 12 months ago, and eventually won the tournament . It’s the earliest of early days. Nobody reads too much into these group games anymore.
Even so, this was a crashing disappointment, given Liverpool’s current domestic form and their pedigree and growth in this competition. European champions usually get to bask in the glory a little longer than this. Instead, it is sleeves up and here we go again, given that one of the group, RB Salzburg, opened by putting six past Genk. Now this may be because the Belgians are hopeless and Salzburg may have been greatly flattered. Yet Liverpool cannot presume. Next month, when they play the Austrians at Anfield, there can be no slip-ups.
Dries Mertens was on the scoresheet as they beat defending holders Liverpool in their Champions League opener
Mertens scored from the penalty spot on 82 minutes to earn the Serie A side all three points in a close-fought encounter
Napoli were awarded the penalty when Jose Callejon fell under the challenge of Liverpool left back Andrew Robertson
Belgium international Mertens was quickly mobbed by his team-mates to rocking Stadio San Paolo
MATCH FACTS AND PLAYER RATINGS
Napoli (4-4-2): Meret 7: Di Lorenzo 7, Manolas 6, Koulibaly 8, Rui 6: Callejon 7, Allan 7 (Elmas 75), Fabian Ruiz 8, Insigne 6 (Zielinski 67, 6): Mertens 8, Lozano 6 (Llorente 69).
Subs not used: Ospina, Maksimovic, Ghoulam, Milik
Goals: Mertens 82 (pen), Llorente 90+2
Manager: Carlo Ancelotti – 7
Liverpool (4-3-3): Adrian 7: Alexander-Arnold 6, Matip 7, Van Dijk 8, Robertson 6: Henderson 7 (Shaqiri 87), Fabinho 8.5, Milner 6 (Wijnaldum 65, 6): Salah 6, Firmino 6, Mane 6
Subs not used: Kelleher, Lovren, Gomez, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Lallana
Booked: Robertson, Milner
Manager: Jurgen Klopp – 6
Referee: Felix Brych (Germany) – 7
*Player Ratings by DOMINIC KING
It took a superb piece of goalkeeping from Alex Meret to stop them taking a lead in the second half when the otherwise excellent Napoli defence made a hash of a simple clearance. To be fair, it was not the fault of Kalidou Koulibaly. He was outstanding all game and it is easy to see why he was on Liverpool’s shortlist had their move for Virgil van Dijk – who was quite magnificent, as ever – had not come to fruition.
So Koulibaly did his job on this occasion, too, a deep centre repelled with an equally forthright header which fell to his defensive partner Kostas Monolas, who was farther advanced. He made a complete mess attempting to push the ball on, however, and sliced his kick, sending it backwards and into the path of Mohamed Salah. It was a gift and Salah looked certain to take advantage, had Meret not been equal to his low shot, pushing it around the far post.
It meant Liverpool remained vulnerable to a random occurrence and with eight minutes remaining, one arrived: a blunder from the usually faultless Andrew Robertson. Jose Callejon, moved from a wide position in support of the attack in a smart move by Carlo Ancelotti, stuck out a leg in the manner of David Luiz, sent his man tumbling and gave referee Felix Brych no choice but to point to the spot. Adrian, who had been excellent all night, got a hand to Dries Mertens low shot, but it was not enough to keep it out.
Yet worse followed. Van Dijk was in possession, a state in which he is usually so calm, so precise, when he inexplicably turned and attempted to pass back to Adrian without seeing the lurking danger of Fernando Llorente. The former Tottenham man accepted the present gleefully, van Dijk put his head in his hands, his veneer of invincibility gone. Liverpool’s too.
Liverpool midfielder Fabinho heads away in the middle of the park during the opening exchanges in Naples
Sadio Mane (right) attempts to control the ball as Liverpool continued their positive start in southern Italy
Mertens curls a ball towards goal as the Serie A side look to break the deadlock at the Stadio San Paolo
For a team with such talent in recent years it comes as something of a surprise that Napoli have won just four of their last 12 Champions League games. No surprise, however, that each of those victories has come at the Stadio San Paolo. Even with the bottom tier largely empty, it is a ferocious, inhospitable place, foreign in a way few grounds are these days. A crumbling, concrete bowl with a running track that is supposed to be an atmosphere killer and a moat that offers a clue to the mood within, it is a throwback to the days when European away fixtures were genuine steps into the unknown.
It hardly matters that a visit to Naples is not uncommon for English clubs, that Liverpool were here in the group stage last year, or previously in 2010. Every journey has an edge. Traffic in the centre was kept at bay for what seemed an age to allow Liverpool’s coach to get to the ground in time – yet the sirens of the police escort wailed forlornly as the bus found no easy passage through. The docile, day-tripper crowd that gathered outside the team hotel were replaced by hundreds of speeding scooter boys who travelled in the coach’s slip stream, taking advantage of the opportunity to beat the gridlock. On every corner, locals gathered to greet the European champions with jeers. It made for quite the spectacle.
The game, too, had plenty of energy. Carlo Ancelotti is not the cliched defensive Italian coach. He gambles, he attacks and Napoli were often set up 4-2-4 in an attempt to negate Liverpool’s marauding full-backs. In the first-half, at least, it was largely successful and while Liverpool had two more pops at goal than they did on their last visit – when they had none in possibly the most disappointing performance of their 2018-19 European campaign – it was Napoli who seized the early initiative.
Liverpool forward Mo Salah (right) sees an effort blocked by the outstretched leg of Napoli centre back Kostas Manolas
Salah shrugs off a challenge from Napoli centre back Kalidou Koulibaly as the visitors go on the attack
Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp barks out instructions on the touchline to his team during the first half
His Napoli counterpart Carlo Ancelotti was as equally animated on the touchline during a goalless opening 45 minutes
Liverpool defender Joel Matip (left) and Trent Alexander-Arnold crowd out Napoli forward Hirving Lozano
Indeed, they had the ball in the net after just seven minutes, having forced an excellent double save from Adrian, still deputising well for the injured Alisson Becker. Both stops came from shots by midfielder Fabian Ruiz, bought from Real Betis for £30m two summers ago. His first was kept out by Adrian, but the ball returned to the feet of the Spanish international, who tried again. Adrian was equal to it once more, but this time the deflection bounced up and was headed in by Hirving Lozano, late of PSV Eindhoven and too much of a handful for Tottenham in previous Champions League campaigns. He headed in to the unguarded net with Adrian stranded, but a flag was instantly raised and play had restarted before VAR even completed its cursory check.
Soon after, another opportunity for Ruiz when Callejon struck a deep cross which should have found the target. Instead he volleyed it back across the penalty area, in what was either a miskick or a misread of the best plan. After half-time, Adrian was needed again, making an excellent save from Mertens at the far post.
Liverpool took longer to get into the game but, when they did, forced a save from goalkeeper Alex Meret. Possession was lost cheaply by Napoli in midfield, and Jordan Henderson picked out Sadio Mane with a neat pass, Meret to the rescue at the near post. He would have been powerless, however, had Roberto Firmino been a little more accurate with a header four minutes before half-time. James Milner – who ran farther than any other player in the first-half, on a very sticky night in Italy’s south – played the ball in, and Firmino had a free header which he steered the wrong side of the far post. Meret wouldn’t have been able to reach it, with a tad more precision.
Shortly after the start of the second half, Napoli thought they had taken the lead but Adrian did brilliantly to deny Mertens
Salah could only watch on after his goalbound drive was brilliantly saved by the fingertips of Napoli goalkeeper Alex Meret
Fernando Llorente came off the bench to score in injury time to complete the scoreline for Napoli
The former Tottenham striker capitalised on a mistake from Van Dijk to slot an effort past Liverpool goalkeeper Adrian
The veteran Spaniard was duly mobbed by his team-mates as they celebrated his strike to secure the victory