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.
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.
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 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.