Liverpool will begin the defence of their UEFA Champions League crown on Tuesday, when they take on Napoli in their first Group E clash at San Paolo.
The curtains are set to raise on the Group Stage of this season’s UEFA Champions League. Current holders Liverpool will be in action on Tuesday night, when they travel to San Paolo to face off against an opponent they locked horns with last season at the same stage, Napoli.
Liverpool have carried off from where they left off at the end of last season, when they won their sixth UEFA Champions League crown. The Reds already have their first title of the campaign in the bag, having beaten Chelsea on penalties to lift the UEFA Super Cup. In the Premier League, they have a perfect record so far and sit atop the table after five games.
Napoli, on the other hand, have endured a stuttering start to the 2019-20 season. The Partenopei have won two of their first three Serie A games, with the solitary setback being a 4-3 defeat to Juventus before the international break. But, it is their Champions League record that Napoli will be keen to improve, with their last two campaigns culminating in Group Stage exits.
Liverpool had their Champions League hopes dangling by a thread when they last clashed with Napoli on Matchday 6 of last season’s Group Stage. But, a 1-0 win, courtesy a first half strike by Mohamed Salah, did not only turn the Merseyside club’s fortunes around, it also sent Napoli out of the competition and down to the Europa League.
Ahead of the latest meeting between the two sides, The Hard Tackle takes a closer look at the UEFA Champions League encounter.
Team News & Tactics
Carlo Ancelotti has seen his team’s injury troubles ease up post the international break. The Napoli manager will be without just two first-team players in the worst case scenario when Liverpool come visiting, with Arkadiusz Milik (groin) and Elseid Hysaj (muscle injury) being major doubts.
The good news is that Lorenzo Insigne has regained full fitness. And, the Napoli captain is poised to return to the starting lineup on Tuesday, lining up on the left side of his team’s midfield, with Piotr Zielinski making way for him. On the opposite flank, Jose Callejon should keep his place despite playing the entire 90 against Sampdoria.
Callejon will be a key figure for the Partenopei on both ends of the pitch, hoping to use his work-rate to good effect while playing a key role in the hosts’ build-up play. Insigne and Callejon are likely to flank Fabian Ruiz and Allan. While Ruiz will be the orchestrator in the middle of the park, Allan will be tasked with disrupting the flow of the Liverpool attack.
Up ahead, Napoli’s unorthodox strike partnership is expected to feature Hirving Lozano and Dries Mertens. Of the two, Mertens will be the hit-man for Napoli, although he will also mix it up by dropping deep to allow Lozano to exploit the space vacated by him around the Liverpool box.
At the back, there are some important decisions for Ancelotti to make. While Kalidou Koulibaly and Giovanni Di Lorenzo are certain starters in the four-man defensive line, the other two spots remain up for grabs.
Kostas Manolas though, should edge Nikola Maksimovic to partner Koulibaly at the heart of the Napoli defence. Mario Rui and Faouzi Ghoulam are contesting for the left-back slot, with the former likelier to get the nod from Ancelotti. Alex Meret is the first-choice goalkeeper and should keep David Ospina and Orestis Karnezis out of the starting lineup.
Probable Lineup (4-4-2): Meret; Di Lorenzo, Manolas, Koulibaly, Rui; Callejon, Ruiz, Allan, Insigne; Lozano, Mertens
Alisson remains the most notable absentee for Liverpool, with the Brazilian goalkeeper only expected to return after the second international break of the season, next month. In his absence, Adrian will continue to man the goal for the Reds.
Apart from Alisson, Jurgen Klopp is also fretting over the fitness of Naby Keita and Divock Origi. Keita has returned to training and is build his fitness up, although the UEFA Champions League tie against Napoli will have come too soon for him. Origi, on the other hand, picked up an ankle injury this past weekend and is likely to miss out the Napoli fixture at the very least.
But, even if Origi was fit, he would not have managed to start on Tuesday, as he only started against Newcastle United to provide Roberto Firmino some rest. Firmino will return to the starting lineup, buoyed by a fantastic all-round performance that was the catalyst for a comfortable 3-1 win.
The Brazilian will be accompanied by attacking ever-presents Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane in the Liverpool frontline. Last season’s Premier League Golden Boot joint-winners will hope to begin their bids to become the UEFA Champions League top scorers this term.
The midfield unit should see one change, with Jordan Henderson replacing Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain after being rested for the trip to Napoli. Georginio Wijnaldum is likely to keep James Milner out of the side, while Fabinho is a certain starter and will reprise the no. 6 role.
At the back, there could be one change in Klopp’s effort to keep his side fresh amid a fixture congestion. Joe Gomez could come into the side to partner Virgil van Dijk at the heart of the Liverpool defence.
Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andrew Robertson will continue as the full-backs. Alexander-Arnold, though, will need to be wary of any defensive lapse when up against the wily Lorenzo Insigne.
Probable Lineup (4-3-3): Adrian; Alexander-Arnold, Gomez, van Dijk, Robertson; Henderson, Fabinho, Wijnaldum; Salah, Firmino, Mane
- This will be the fifth meeting between Napoli and Liverpool in European competition. The two sides clashed twice in the 2010-11 UEFA Europa League Group Stage and again in two Group Stage games in last season’s UEFA Champions League.
- Napoli have won only four of their last 12 UEFA Champions League matches (D3 L5), although each of those victories have come at San Paolo.
- Liverpool have won five of their last seven European fixtures (D1 L1) but have lost six of their last ten UEFA competition matches outside England.
- Liverpool have lost their last two matches in Italy but have been beaten in only three of their last nine away games against Italian clubs, winning three.
- Since the start of 2017-18, Roberto Firmino has been directly involved in 22 goals in 25 UEFA Champions League appearances (14 goals, eight assists), more than any other player Liverpool in this period.
Player to Watch
Napoli have been serial underperformers in the UEFA Champions League over the years and if they are to reverse the tide this season, they will need their captain to lead from the front. Insigne has done reasonably well in the competition, with 9 goals and an assist in 25 appearances.
In fact, Insigne was on target when Napoli edged out Liverpool by a solitary goal at San Paolo last season. And, if the Partenopei are to end up on the right side of the result this time around, their captain will need to be at his best, making things tick in the final third alongside Dries Mertens. Will he step up, though?
Napoli 1-2 Liverpool
The two clubs that are primed to progress to the UEFA Champions League Round of 16 from Group E are kicking things off. And, with the game presenting Napoli and Liverpool a chance to lay down the marker for the Group Stage campaign, one can expect fireworks from the contest on Tuesday.
Both sides have their fair share of problems at the back, meaning there is unlikely to be a shortage of goalmouth action, unlike last season. But, when one considers the form of the two attacking units, it is Liverpool who seem to hold the edge.
In the end, there should be very little separating the two sides. But, with Roberto Firmino being in devastating touch, we expect Liverpool to edge this contest, only just. The Hard Tackle predicts a 2-1 win for Jurgen Klopp & co. to continue their fine run in Europe.