The Reds have come a long way since our last visit to Naples. A look back at the line-up for Liverpool’s first European encounter with Napoli in the Europa League group stage back in the autumn of 2010 brings a chill to the bones.
The club was still in the throes of protest from supporters against the ownership of George Gillett and Tom Hicks and the midst of Roy Hodgson’s blood curdling management. To an extent Hodgson had shuffled his pack in the wake of 2-0 defeat at Everton the previous weekend after which he had famously said achieving a result would have been “utopia”.
A Liverpool team featuring such luminaries as Milan Jovanovic, David Ngog, Jay Spearing, Christian Poulsen and Paul Konchesky played out a drab goalless draw in the Stadio San Paulo which prompted another uplifting Hodgson classic in his assertion that “we showed that the club isn’t dead”. At the time most fans would have begged to differ.
Thankfully it wasn’t long before New England Sports Ventures (now Fenway Sports Group) took on the reigns of a financially ravaged football institution to avert administration, listened to the howls of the Kop, appointed Kenny Dalglish and the club was able to quickly recapture its soul.
That we return to the foothills of Mount Vesuvius newly-recognised as a major European force is testament to the surgical improvement of the squad since Jurgen Klopp’s arrival at Anfield. If the Europa League run in 2016 pricked the continent’s consciousness that Liverpool were still around, last season’s odyssey ending in Kiev catapulted the Reds back into the bracket of the Champions League’s biggest names.
Napoli too are a different proposition from the side we met eight years ago, having established themselves as Italy’s second string behind the omnipotent Juventus, but just like ourselves – despite a renewed profile in Europe – crave a first domestic title since 1990. Their supporters still revel in the era of Diego Maradona when Serie A was still riding the euphoric wave of Italy’s win in the 1982 World Cup.
To this day, Italian society is imbued with the notion of an unbridgeable chasm between the industrial powerhouses and sleek cities of the north and the poorer, rural south. Maradona’s seven-year stint in Naples not only challenged the traditional supremacy on the field of Roma, Juve and the Milanese giants, his artistry and desire on the pitch gave the Neapolitan people something to rejoice and a sense of identity.
The Scudetto – Napoli becoming the first ever southern champions – arrived in 1987 and a UEFA Cup followed in 1989. Thirty years on, his image still decorates Naples in murals across the city; Maradona is his pomp as iconic in the light blue of the Gli Azzurri as in the stripes of Argentina.
That was then, this is now. On Wednesday night we run into an old foe in Carlo Ancelotti who has assumed the managerial reigns from Maurizio Sarri. Sarri’s team ran Juventus agonisingly close last season; despite accruing a total of 91 points, falling just four short in an epic title race.
Most of the team – Jorginho, who followed Sarri to Chelsea, aside – remain in situ so Jurgen Klopp will resist the temptation to rotate, even with Manchester City on the horizon at the weekend. Ancelotti’s men stand second again – once more trailing Juve – after a 3-1 defeat in Turin on Saturday and are clearly no mugs.
The Reds back line will be tested by the twin threat of the mercurial Belgian Dries Mertens and the fleet of foot of Naples’ golden boy Lorenzo Insigne up front. In midfield, the Brazilian holding midfielder Allan is their fulcrum, alongside the talented Slovak Marek Hasmik and one-time Liverpool target Piotr Zielinski. At the back, Kalidou Koulibaly – another who courted the Reds’ attentions in the summer – is the pillar of a defence charged with quelling the threat of Liverpool’s front three, which despite the claims of Daniel Sturridge will probably remain unchanged.
Even after the thrilling win over Paris Saint German in the opening tie, this Group remains competitive and there is no room for slips up. The colosseum-like San Paulo packed to its 60,000 capacity will be no place for faint hearts as the Reds look to preserve their supremacy won on Matchday 1.
*all odds are subject to change