IT’S an odd competition at times, the Champions League.
Its group phase is unsettling. The matches are all obviously very important. They must be, as teams — especially those in the Premier League — have sweated nine long months to qualify for them. Yet the reality is often anti climatic.
The level of contest is often a touch mediocre. Even the fixtures against elite clubs have more of a showpiece feel about them. Then it throws up a Liverpool v Napoli.
The phoney war definitely ends here. All we worked for last season, and all that we define ourselves by this term, comes down to a game. At least in our immediate reality, it appears this way.
Timely then that the fixture arrives at a peak moment of beauty for us. Beating Bournemouth in style and then retaining top spot in the league has put smiles on faces and calmed nerve. Crazy as it sounds, the pressure of maintaining a winning run just to keep on City’s coattails was more stressful than gratifying.
Had Liverpool faced up to the Napoli challenge a week ago, I suspect that we’d have been worse placed to deal with disappointment. We can go out of the Champions League this week, and it will be a major blow if we do so but at least on Wednesday morning the team will be able to remind itself that it still sits top of the pile in our fearsome domestic league. That knowledge alone should keep the black dog from the door for a squad showing signs not just that they can compete for the Premier League title, but push on to actually claim it.
I hope that, safe in the knowledge that Napoli cannot end our season, our lads will be less encumbered and play with some of the freedom that saw them maraud to last campaign’s Champions League final. In our muscle memory is the near conquering of all of Europe.
Jürgen Klopp rested his entire first-choice front three last week at Burnley so that his team could arrive in this pivotal week in fresh fettle. Sadio Mane has even enjoyed two games off. In his absence, Xherdan Shaqiri continues to impress. Likewise Naby Keita is back on the scene and providing food for thought every time he plays.
Others have plenty of miles still in them due to enforced absences. Jordan Henderson hasn’t started every single game and nor has James Milner. Adam Lallana is also returning and providing his manager with options.
It’s tricky to call the Liverpool team for Tuesday night. Even at the back there are limited certainties. Of course the ‘keeper, Alisson Becker, Virgil van Dijk and Andy Robbo start. But who claims the right-back berth? It should be Trent Alexander-Arnold but then Milner is the last man to have played there and played there with great efficiency (at Bournemouth on Sunday).
At centre back, Dejan Lovren will believe that he is first in the pecking order to partner van Dijk but Joel Matip was singled out for praise from Klopp for his weekend performance. He may very well retain his place.
While we’d all guess at the front three being a combo of Mane, Roberto Firmino and Mo Salah, selecting the midfield to back them up is no simple task. Having been rested at the weekend it seems reasonably likely that Henderson will be recalled and will anchor that midfield. Will he be partnered in a double pivot, 4-2-3-1 formation, or will we see a return to the trusty 4-3-3 that proved so effective against continental sides last season?
Klopp’s Liverpool have been a much more patient model of late. They have not sought to throw the kitchen sink at opponents from the off, preferring at times sterile domination before applying the accelerator. That may suit a Napoli side who come to Anfield knowing that a draw is their win.
Liverpool must beat the Italians 1-0 or by at least a two-goal margin. Given this challenge, Napoli can afford to be more patient than we can be. Carlo Ancelotti’s team will force nothing, safe in the knowledge that they have attacking players to punish a Liverpool side who may tend towards over stretching themselves at times.
Jürgen Klopp may sense that the only way for The Reds to prevail will be if they harness all of Anfield’s power. That would require Liverpool to be at their most swashbuckling.
Napoli are a really good team and a formidable challenge, but so too were their peers Roma in April. Bobby, Sadio and Mo will fancy this.
Expect no tiptoeing from Liverpool. Expect war.
Predicted 11: Alisson; Trent, Matip, van Dijk, Robertson; Henderson, Milner, Keita; Salah, Firmino, Mane
Kick off: 8pm, Tuesday
Referee: Damir Skomina (Slovenia)
Odds by Redsbet: Liverpool 20-31, Draw 33-10, Napoli 17-4
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“We were saying that maybe there just weren’t any good goalkeepers around anymore… nah, there is one, we signed him.” 🔥
— The Anfield Wrap (@TheAnfieldWrap) December 10, 2018