The European Champions began their title defence tonight with a bitter 2-0 defeat in Naples.
The Reds were the stronger team for large periods of the match, but their inability to take advantage of a slew of opportunities on the counter and a controversial decision going against them ultimately decided the outcome of what was a footballing spectacle.
The match started out relatively quick, with both teams running end to end in search of an opener. Jordan Henderson played a beautiful pass early on to Mo Salah, but it was scuffed away by Napoli left-back Mario Ruí.
Change of style
Liverpool began sitting back and inviting pressure; looking to break on the counter. Mane played a peach of a first time ball to Salah as the two spearheaded down the field on the break only for Salah’s attempt at a return through ball was blocked.
Napoli began to find some space and exploit some tired legs, but Adrían denied the Neapolitans an opening goal with a great double save on Fabian Ruiz.
Napoli began to find some space and counter-attack through Dries Mertens, but Trent held firm in his marking of Mertens. As Napoli began creeping forward, the Reds began to find their rhythm.
Fabinho put on an absolute clinic in the first half, constantly disrupting the Napoli play and momentum and releasing Salah and Mane for counter-attacks.
Unfortunately, Napoli’s stud centre half Kalidou Coulibaly showed why he’s so highly sought after from some of Europe’s top clubs, consistently ending many of the Reds’ threatening breaks.
As the half came to a close, Liverpool pushed for a goal. Salah made a good move to cut inside on his left but put his effort wide.
Shortly after, Roberto Firmino played a pass that only Roberto Firmino could play to set up Mane, but it was cleared. The Reds has one final chance from a set-piece, where a Milner cross found the head of Firmino from a slick set-piece routine, but the Brazilian’s effort flew inches wide of the far post.
The second half was similar to the first. Napoli began to find their rhythm when a cross to the back post found Dries Mertens, but his effort was pushed wide by Adrían, who made a world-class save.
The Reds remained potent on the counter-attack all night. Salah and Mane spearheaded another two man break similar to the one we saw at West Ham two seasons ago. Except for this time Sadio put a little too much behind his through ball to Salah who was in on goal and the chance was gone.
James Milner and Andy Robertson picked up yellow cards for late challenges, springing a Wijnaldum for Milner sub.
The Reds attack picked up a little bit with Gini’s introduction, and Salah found himself on the end of a great chance to put the Reds ahead, but Napoli keeper Meret made a good save to push it wide for a corner.
The Reds remained patient despite all their frustrations on the night but were ultimately denied a final chance at goal when Meret saved a decent chance from Mane.
What followed next will be the biggest talking point of the night.
José Callejon received a ball at the top left corner of the Liverpool box, cut inside and dove to the ground before sandy Robertson even made an effort to make a tackle, and the referee shockingly pointed to the spot. Penalty.
The penalty was reviewed by the video assistant referee (VAR) and ultimately was deemed a penalty. An absolutely shocking decision that went against the Reds. Dries Mertens stepped up to the spot and just powered his shot past the fingertips of Adrían to put the hosts in front 1-0. The first goal of the match was a direct result from a dive.
The Reds looked like they had the life sucked out of them, and in the closing moments of the game a mistake from Virgil Van Dijk allowed the ball to fall to Fernando Llortente who calmly slotted his effort past Adrían to extend the lead to 2-0.
The final whistle blew with the Reds coming up short away to Napoli for a second successive season. We come away with a more positive feeling than last year.