In the last couple of seasons, it has been evident that Napoli’s frail mentality in European competition has seen them fall short in the decisive fixtures. The losses to Shakhtar Donetsk under Maurizio Sarri in the 2017-18 campaign and last season’s slip-ups against Paris Saint-Germain and Red Star Belgrade highlighted a mentality issue when it comes to playing in the Champions League.
However, Napoli’s famous victory against the reigning champions Liverpool last night has now changed the perception of many football pundits, other European competitors and the Neapolitan fans. The Partenopei showed they aren’t frightened of any decorated European side – a sign that indicates how Carlo Ancelotti has finally transmitted his Champions League flair into his players.
Picking so many attacking options in the starting XI was a statement of intent and the team followed suit. They were not afraid of taking the game to Liverpool and accepting the risks that go with that approach.
He is the right man to do it, after all. Aside from lifting the trophy three times between Milan and Real Madrid, he also beat the reigning champions four times with four different clubs.
This season, Napoli finally have depth in their squad to balance between the domestic and European fronts. The front duo of Dries Mertens and Hirving Lozano has been paying dividends for Napoli’s attack – allowing players like Jose Callejon and Lorenzo Insigne to roam more freely and showcase their creativity in the wide areas. It was refreshing to see that Ancelotti could rest one of his top strikers – Lozano – and bring on Fernando Llorente.
The Partenopei have lacked an impact striker with European competition experience for quite some time. Llorente’s goal in the dying embers of last night’s game showed why the 34-year-old Spaniard is going to be Ancelotti’s wildcard this campaign – just like his role in the latter stages of Tottenham’s incredible Champions League run last season.
Llorente has that poacher’s instinct – the ability to pounce on a defensive mistake and score to take the sting out of the game and opponents. And let’s not forget, Napoli also boast Arkadiusz Milik as another dangerous striking option.
Napoli’s new signing Eljif Elmas is also another decent option for Ancelotti to utilise in the latter stages of a game. The 19-year-old Macedonian played in the last 15 minutes against Liverpool after replacing the exhausted Allan. Elmas showed glimpses of quick passing - having that element of unpredictability to his game.
After past shortcomings in the Champions League, Aurelio De Laurentiis finally realised that more investments were needed to add depth to Napoli’s squad. The performances from Llorente, Lozano, Giovanni Di Lorenzo, Kostas Manolas and Elmas against Liverpool highlighted the importance of the new purchases.
Another factor that played a crucial role in Napoli’s monumental win against the Reds was Ancelotti’s tactical change with the 4-4-2 formation. Since the Napoli boss used this system against Sampdoria last weekend, the team’s attack and defence seem nicely balanced. Above all, playing with the two strikers up top has brought the best out of Mertens, hence allowing Fabian Ruiz to play his dribbling and passing game a little further back. The quick movement and dynamic runs from the Mertens-Lozano combination caused several headaches for Liverpool’s centre-backs Virgil van Dijk and Joel Matip.
Napoli’s defence also looked more composed against the European champions. We finally saw the Manolas-Koulibaly defensive partnership come to fruition against one of world football’s deadliest forward trios (Mane, Firmino and Salah).
Mario Rui and European debutant Giovanni Di Lorenzo worked tirelessly for the full 90 minutes against the English Premier League leaders – producing goal-saving moments to deny Salah, Firmino and Mane. If the southern Italian club can emulate this type of performance, especially when keeping clean sheets, then they could continue to gain the trust of many supporters in this season’s Champions League.
The goalkeeping department was another area Napoli was struggling with at certain moments in past Champions League tournaments. But with a fit Alex Meret at their disposal, this adds another layer behind the Partenopei’s solid defensive line. The 22-year-old Italian goalkeeper kept great composure against Liverpool and made some crucial saves on his continental debut.
After exiting the group stage of the Champions League last season, Ancelotti’s European experience is rapidly changing the mentality of the players, coaching staff and owner over at the San Paolo. The win against Liverpool is a statement that the Partenopei have strengthened on the pitch, but most importantly, strengthened mentally.
Of course, they also beat Liverpool here last season and still went out on goal difference. The key to Champions League group stage football is not underestimating the so-called ‘softer’ fixtures, a lesson Inter may well learn to their cost.