Liverpool's Andy Robertson says Champions League defence 'doesn’t get much harder' than a trip to Napoli
It was a sliding-doors moment in Liverpool’s history. But for a sublime goal from Mohamed Salah, a typical blur of speed and skill, and a superb late save from Alisson, showing his athleticism to deny Arkadiusz Milik, their Champions League campaign would have ended at Anfield in December, not in the glory of Madrid in May.
Liverpool came perilously near to perishing in the tournament’s group of death. Had Virgil van Dijk been sent off for a lunge at Dries Mertens, they might well have done. “It was a wee bit close for comfort,” said Andy Robertson, arguably the man of the match at Anfield on that December day. Even Barcelona did not come closer to eliminating Liverpool than Napoli, and yet Carlo Ancelotti’s side ended up tumbling into the Europa League.
As they reconvene at the San Paolo Stadium on Tuesday, it is with two fundamental differences: Liverpool are now European champions and there is no equivalent of Paris Saint-Germain in this year’s pool, no third favourite competing for the top two places. Not with Genk and Red Bull Salzburg joining them in Group E.
“We’ll look to be more comfortable this season,” Roberson added. “The way to do that is by putting in a good performance and getting off to a good start. The group is going to be tough but that’s the chance we’ve got, the chance to win and get three points from the second seeds. We know how close it was between us and them last season.”
Both meetings ended 1-0 and while Lorenzo Insigne’s decider in Italy last October came in the 90th minute, Liverpool were fortunate to have preserved parity for so long. They failed to register a shot on target and Trent Alexander-Arnold recalled: “The manager said it was probably our worst game of the season as a performance.”
Roberson concurred as he reflected on a pool where Liverpool lost all three away games. “The result followed the performance and the performance wasn’t good enough,” the Scotland captain said. “It was poor from our perspective in all the away games last season in the group stages, we didn’t really perform. We need to be better than that.”
Alexander-Arnold cited the famed hostility of the Napoli fans and added: “We're expecting that but we'll learn from our mistakes last year. Hopefully we'll go there with a better gameplan.” The sense is that Jurgen Klopp has been concentrating on this and not merely because, in his Borussia Dortmund days, he was sent off in Naples for a remarkable rant at the fourth official. “I made myself look a monkey and that’s not on,” the German said in 2013. “It was really pathetic of me.”
It is safe to say Klopp has different plans for a return. A week that ends with a trip to Chelsea always looked among the most demanding of Liverpool’s season. It began with Roberto Firmino and Jordan Henderson, two of those whose game relies most on running power, on the bench against Newcastle United. The Brazilian was summoned in the first half when Divock Origi went off. He has had a scan on an ankle injury but the Under 17 World Cup winner Rhian Brewster, who is yet to make his Liverpool debut, might be the back-up forward.
If there could be a new face, there will be an old one. Ancelotti faced Liverpool in the 2005 and 2007 Champions League finals. He may need no reminders of the anguish AC Milan suffered in Istanbul. The victim of Liverpool’s most famous comeback wrote in his autobiography that: “The light had gone out and there was no time to change the bulb. It was moving too fast and there was no time to run for shelter. A perfect piece of machinery in an irreversible nosedive.”
He did not need last-minute drama in each game against Liverpool last season to know about football’s unpredictability. Liverpool, who have not won in Italy for a decade, did not require a 3-0 pre-season defeat to Napoli to inform them about their hosts’ threat.
“We know what Naples is like but it’s the start of us trying to retain the Champions League,” Robertson added. “It starts in Naples. It doesn’t get much harder, but we look forward to it.”
Updated: September 17, 2019 02:24 PM