Liverpool all but confirmed their qualification into the last 16 of the UEFA Champions League following a scrappy 1-1 draw with Napoli at Anfield in what was Jürgen Klopp’s 100th European game.
Klopp made three changes to the side that triumphed over Crystal Palace at the weekend. Joe Gomez, James Milner and Mohamed Salah all returned to the starting XI, replacing Trent Alexander-Arnold, Gini Wijnaldum and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain.
Fabinho retained his place after picking up a one-match Premier League ban through accumulation of yellow cards, but his layoff may now be longer after he hobbled off with an ankle problem after just 18 minutes.
A scrappy start to the match saw Napoli set up in a relatively defensive formation as they looked to limit the space for Liverpool’s front three.
With the game having not yet settled, Klopp’s side were dealt a blow after Fabinho was forced off in the 19th minute following a collision in the middle of the pitch. The Brazilian destroyer attempted to continue following the initial impact however was replaced shortly after by Wijnaldum.
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Things went from bad to worse soon after Fabinho’s departure as Napoli controversially went ahead through Dries Mertens in the 21st minute. The Belgian striker seemed to intentionally collide with Virgil Van Dijk, leaving the Liverpool defender on the deck before continuing his attack.
After the collision, Mertens proceeded to burst in behind the Liverpool defence before dispatching a venomous effort into the bottom right corner of Alisson’s net from a tight angle. A VAR check followed but the goal stood and so did Napoli’s lead.
Following the goal, Napoli sat back in typical Carlo Ancelotti style, employing a low block and killing all the space available to Klopp’s team. The Italian tactics worked in both frustrating the Reds and in sucking the life out of Anfield as the famed stadium fell silent.
As the half came to a close, Liverpool finally pressed the Napoli backline as Klopp’s side began to turn the screw. With this being said, it was too little too late for Liverpool in the half, as the European Champions went into the break 1-0 down. The Napoli block had succeeded in frustrating Liverpool for now, even causing Klopp to lose his cool as he picked up a yellow card.
The start of the second half saw more of the same by Napoli, defending low as a unit and ensuring that the Reds could not benefit from any space around the box. Liverpool’s best chance of the game saw a shift both on and off the pitch as Kalidou Koulibaly was forced to make a goal line clearance to deny Roberto Firmino.
Following this chance, Klopp turned to his bench in an attempt to capitalise on his sides sudden rejuvenation and introduced Oxlade-Chamberlain to the fray. The Englishman’s presence clearly added an extra dimension to Liverpool’s attack as the Reds quickly managed to string together two more attempts on the Napoli goal.
Liverpool’s endless waves of pressure finally saw a breakthrough as the most unluckiest if sources stepped up to draw the Reds level.
Having failed to capitalise from their numerous corners throughout the match, Klopp’s men finally managed to make one count as Dejan Lovren pounced on a deep Milner corner to head the ball past the motionless Alex Meret. The Napoli backline were too focused on van Dijk and allowed Croat to sneak in round the back and head it home. 1-1 after 65 minutes.
Following the equaliser Liverpool continued to apply the pressure on the deep Napoli defence as the Italian visitors inched further and further back into their own half.
As the game continued however Napoli yet again began to suffocate the space and atmosphere with their imperious defensive performance