They were queueing up to deliver the last rites before this match. It was, we were told, the end of an era for this squad, its stars and probably its coach. But, at what appeared their darkest hour, Napoli showed reserves of character and quality which suggested their demise might not be as imminent as some had supposed. There’s life in the old club yet.
It would be ridiculous to suggest that the Partenopei are some kind of bogey team for the champions of Europe, but they are certainly an outfit that knows how to cause Jurgen Klopp a few headaches. They were on the ropes for long spells of this visit to Anfield, but stuck to a plan that took them to the brink of the Champions League knockout stages. That’s not a land where they let the mediocre venture.
In the first half, there were hints of the old swagger even despite the absence of the likes of Lorenzo Insigne, Arek Milik and Jose Callejon from the starting line-up. Dries Mertens took his chance in style and there were moments when the odd pass between him and Hirving Lozano was just marginally overhit, as chances to cut Liverpool open presented themselves. A little more precision and they might have been further ahead at half-time.
The second period, though, was largely about digging in - which is not something you would expect if the club were truly in crisis. They resisted wave after wave of attack from Mo Salah, Sadio Mane and Bobby Firmino and just about held firm. A headed goal from Dejan Lovren might have cut the legs from under a weaker side - instead they stayed strong and can now glimpse the last 16.
Of course, there is an argument to say that it is easy to get a team “up” for matches like this and there is some truth in that. Everyone wants to play their best on the biggest stages, and it tends to encourage players to go above and beyond their usual limitations. It will be interesting to see if the same commitment comes at the San Paolo this weekend for a more humdrum Serie A clash with Bologna.
It was ludicrous to think these players and their coach had gone bad overnight, but they have definitely been underperforming in recent weeks. A squad refresh might be necessary, for sure, but the collapse does not appear as complete as was being described in some quarters. This is still a side packed with fine performers who are capable of producing some sumptuous football - they just need to do it more often.
When expectations get high, of course, the fall is always that much greater. Napoli have spoiled us in recent times with some of the best displays of any Italian club. The slip-ups this season have been uncharacteristic and, definitely a source of some concern.
However, their performance against one of Europe’s elite suggested they can still get some satisfaction from this campaign. This was a stepping-stone which gave some cause for optimism after all the negative headlines of the past few days. The weeks to come will tell us if a full recovery is possible - or if this was just a brief reprieve.
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