Two goals in the final ten minutes ensured that Napoli came out with an opening night victory in their Group E encounter with Liverpool. It provides a major boost as they aim to make up from last years failure to make the knock-out stages.
Uncharacteristic defending mistakes lead to both goals and Jurgen Klopp will also rue missed opportunities at the other end. It was his first loss this season and ends an unbeaten spell going back to last years semi-final with Barcelona.
Both sides made three changes following league victories at the weekend. Carlo Ancelotti brought in Allan, Kostas Monolas and Lorenzo Insigne from the game versus Sampdoria in favour of Eljif Elmas, Nikola Maksimovic and Faouzi Ghoulam who dropped to the bench.
Klopp called up James Milner, Jordan Henderson and Roberto Firmino after they were rested against Newcastle. That had seen Liverpool win five games in a row. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Georginio Wijnaldum started on the bench. While the scorer from the champions league final, Divrick Origi missed out completely.
And it was the confidence of the away side which was obvious early on. Napoli were playing a high-line and this is always dangerous against a side with pace. Jordan Henderson found Mohamed Salah with a long ball designed to get him one on one. He was able to get into a decent position but was eventually snuffed out. Another pass from Mane also caused worry for their back-line. Napoli then had the ball in the net, but it was ruled offside after Adrian initially saved from Lozano. Dries Mertens being in the wrong place.
The pace remained fast and frenetic with neither side being really able to exert control. Kalidou Koulibaly was keen to prove his worth after an unfortunate own goal away to Juventus. The big defender is always going to be compared to Virgil Van Dijk and he started well. He won the ball from Salah and then managed to hook the ball away on the ground with Roberto Firmino lurking. Salah then went to ground following a challenge but nothing was given.
Napoli came back. Milner was forced to clear after Lozano beat Andy Robertson down the clear and Van Dijk hacked the second attack clear. Insigne then put too much on his cross when he should perhaps have played in Mertens instead.
Klopp had set out to dominate midfield with the inclusion of Henderson, Milner and Fabinho but often found themselves unable to really provide a cutting thrust to aid their attacking players. The latter did have some positive moments, but Napoli got a lot of unexpected joy in this area of the pitch.
Sane was beginning to cause problems for the Napoli defence. He was found in space on the right side of the penalty area, but Alex Meret was equal to the challenge. Good approach play from himself and Salah then led to an opportunity by Milner who blazed over.
Liverpool’s record has not just been down to Van Dijk alone. A great header by Joel Matip denied Lozano after a dangerous cross by Mertens. He was called upon again to head clear moments later. The theme of the better defender arose again with a couple of key blocks and interceptions by Koulibaly. Mane went down after an accidental flaying arming arm but not enough for action to be taken. Mario Ruiz also came to the rescue as a low Milner cross seemed destined for an unmarked Salah. Firmino should have done better with the resulting header as he was unmarked with a few yards out.
Half-time came and both sides had cause to be concerned and yet satisfied.
Liverpool started off on the front foot again. A long-ball by Alexander-Arnold towards Salah was won by Koulibaly but his clearance only found Firmino. The ball was scrambled away before he was able to pose a threat. A goal at both ends almost came about. Adrian pulled off an excellent save to deny a point-blank effort from Mertens after a deep cross by Ruiz. Di Lorenzo was then in the right place at the right time as Mane was poised to take advantage of a Robertson cross.
Liverpool should then have really gone in front. Napoli were caught out from a set-piece as both Mane and Salah hared away. The former held the ball up and looked to pick out his strike partner. The final ball was far too wide to take advantage of the position they had gotten into.
A number of challenges from the Liverpool players began to aggravate the home fans and players. Robertson and Milner were booked in a matter of minutes as the foul count began to jot up. The game was beginning to get a bit on the scrappy side as both teams struggled to find the breakthrough. Manolas almost gifted Liverpool the vital goal as he failed to deal with a high ball. Salah nipped in to strike goalwards but Meret touched it around the post.
Liverpool were beginning to control proceedings as Napoli struggled to regain their shape after making three substitutions. Mane was found with a great ball by Alexander-Arnold but he was unable to control it in time.
Despite Liverpool looking the more likely to score, it was the home-side who struck first. Jose Callejon was picked out on the left side and made his way into the area. He was met by the outstretched leg of Robertson and went to ground. After a brief consultation with VAR, the penalty was awarded. Mertens stepped up to face Adrian. Despite the latter being slightly off his line, and getting a hand to it, the Belgian was successful with his attempt.
The home fans were now ecstatic and Liverpool were on the back foot. Manolas was lucky yet again as his flicked header went just past his own post. Every clearance was being cheered and the away side unable to find that clear opening.
As the clock ticked into injury time, the points were sealed. Van Dijk was put under pressure and lost possession. While he and Robertson stood still, Fernando Llorente was played through the centre. The substitute finished with aplomb into the bottom corner.
Liverpool will aim to get their first points as they host RB Salzburg. Napoli, meanwhile, travel to Belgium to play Genk.
Napoli: Alex Meret; Giovanni Di Lorenzo, Kostas Manolas, Kalidou Koulibaly, Mario Rui, Jose Callejon, Marques Loureiro Allan (Elijif Elmas), Fabian Ruiz, Lorenzo Insigne (Pitor Zielinski), Dries Mertens, Hirving Lozano (Fernando Llorente)
Subs not used: Nikola Maksimovic, David Ospina, Faouzi Ghoulam, Arkadiusz Milik
Liverpool: Adrian; Trent Alexander-Arnold, Joel Matip, Virgil Van Dijk, Andrew Robertson, Jordan Henderson (Xherdan Shaqiri), Fabinho, James Milner (Georginio Wijnaldum), Mohamed Salah, Roberto Firmino, Sadio Mane.
Subs not used: Dejan Lovren, Joe Gomez, Alex Oxlade Chamerlain, Adam Lallana, Caoimhin Kelleher.
Booked: James Milner, Andrew Robertson
Referee: Dr. Felix Brych
ExtraTime.ie Player of the Match: Kalidou Koulibaly