Former Napoli and Liverpool boss Rafael Benitez was asked by Italian Newspaper Corriere dello Sport to name a player from each side that could make the difference in Tuesday’s Champions League clash between the two this week.
“I could say many players, both from Liverpool and Napoli,” the Spaniard admitted. “On the one hand [Sadio] Mane, [Roberto] Firmino, [Daniel] Sturridge; on the other [Jose] Callejon, [Dries] Mertens, [Raul] Albiol and [Kalidou] Koulibaly. However, if I’m asked about one from each side then I’d have to say [Mohamed] Salah and [Lorenzo] Insigne.”
While it is true that both sides have players that can hurt the other, Napoli have evolved more than once since the Benitez era at the Stadio San Paolo. Three years of the precise, passing style of Maurizio Sarri brought the Partenopei within agonising distance of lifting the Scudetto at the end of last season, the tactician moving on to a fresh challenge with Chelsea in the summer.
In his place stepped Carlo Ancelotti for 2018/19, a man whose achievements on paper vastly outweighed his predecessor. The arrival of a man who had won the Champions League on three separate occasions spelled a change of tack for Napoli, a rotation system quickly installed in place of Sarri’s rigid starting XI that had been drained of all energy by the end of the last three consecutive campaigns.
Defensive frailties blighted their early league encounters, as Napoli conceded no less than six goals with their first six shots faced on target under the new man in charge, registering a 2-1 win over Lazio, a 3-2 victory versus AC Milan and a shock 3-0 loss to Sampdoria. Yet the international break gave Ancelotti time to work with his defenders, who were very clearly lost at sea after a move away from the rigid methods of their former boss.
The next four matches saw Napoli concede just one goal before going down to a 3-1 defeat to Juventus in Turin on September 29th. This, and the match with Sampdoria remain Napoli’s only two domestic defeats, and the fact they still sit eight points behind the Bianconeri in the league is more to do with the latter side’s sheer dominance than any failures from Ancelotti’s men.
Of course, it is in European competition where Ancelotti’s pedigree comes into its own, and once again he is proving this in his native Italy. The Partenopei are unbeaten in Group C, sitting at the top with nine points going into the final match, when many – after they were drawn out to play Liverpool, Paris Saint Germain and Red Star Belgrade – didn’t expect them to compete at all.
Let’s be clear, Napoli do not benefit from rich owners, the current squad constructed mainly from funds generated from player sales. Indeed, Since making their debut in the Champions League in 2011/12, this season marks the first time they have ever been unbeaten in their first four group stage matches.
Versus Liverpool, the neutral supporters should be in for a treat, as two sides with clear attacking prowess will go toe-to-toe with a place in the knockout stages on the line. It will not be easy versus a team with obvious European pedigree and with Anfield as a venue having already hosted many exciting nights like this. This will be a real test for Ancelotti and his new-look Napoli but – given the Coach’s personal record in the competition – no-one should be surprised if they do what’s necessary to go through.