A controversial penalty call against Andy Robertson finally saw Liverpool endure fall towards their first competitive defeat of the season as Jurgen Klopp’s bid for a third consecutive Champions League final appearance started in familiar fashion.
Last season, the eventual winners lost all three of their away group games — including one at Napoli — before advancing in the final group match en route to that memorable final success.
Last night, after 80 minutes dominated by two impressive defences, Andrew Robertson was judged to have fouled Jose Callejon by German referee Felix Brych, a call that looked harsh on replays.
The decision was viewed by VAR, but could not determine that Brych had made a “clear and obvious error,” allowing Dries Mertens to drill in a penalty, which keeper Adrian almost managed to keep out.
Not that it mattered, but Liverpool conceded another a minute into added time following that rarest of collector’s items — a mistake from Virgil van Dijk, who flicked a lazy pass into his own area. It was latched onto by former Spurs striker Fernando Llorente, who was on the losing side to Liverpool in the Champions League final in June, who comfortably beat Adrian to double the lead.
Just 108 days after winning the famous trophy for a sixth time, Liverpool embarked on their defence, a bid to become the first English side since Brian Clough’s plucky underdogs Nottingham Forest to retain the title, 40 years ago.
But this Liverpool side is far from being an underdog these days. Last season’s memorable march to Madrid and a sixth European crown number six was no Cinderella story, and the manner in which Liverpool have started the current season has underlined the fact.
Five wins from their opening five league games meant Liverpool took a 100% record in competitive games this season to the famous, and increasingly tired-looking Stadio San Paolo, where they were beaten in their Champions League group last October.
The year since that defeat has seen Klopp’s Liverpool take significant strides, in terms of their self-belief, consistency, and defence, and despite the dangerous reputation owned by of the current Serie A runners-up, they visited Napoli as favourites.
They showed why, just two minutes in, with Jordan Henderson’s superb pass sending Mohamed Salah scurrying away down the inside right channel, easily outpacing full-back Mario Rui.
The Portuguese defender did well to recover and block. It was a tactic Liverpool would try to employ repeatedly, although to little avail.
One of the reasons for Liverpool enduring a goalless first half for the first time this season lay in the form of Napoli central defender Kalidou Koulibaly who, to pay him the biggest compliment currently available to a defender in world football, looked every inch the equal of his Liverpool counterpart van Dijk.
The Senegalese made his best tackle, on Salah, as the Egyptian raced clear after brilliant work by Fabinho to stop what may well have been an opening goal.
And wWhen Salah did get the better of his rival for once after 21 minutes, Koulibaly first escaped Liverpool claims that he may have tugged on his opponent’s shirt and then watched in relief as James Milner cleared the bar from the edge of the area following the rebound.
But it was a game in which the Liverpool defence was tested as much, maybe even more than Napoli’s, and goalkeeper Adrian, playing his first ever Champions League game, twice came to their rescue after six minutes.
Fabian Ruiz fired in two blistering shots from long range in quick succession, both of which the Liverpool reserve keeper blocked excellently, with Hirving Lozano’s follow-up “goal” from the rebound being instantly ruled out for an obvious offside.
If they were Napoli’s best chances of the half, Liverpool’s did not arrive until the 43rd minute when Milner curled in a tantalising cross which Roberto Firmino met with a firm header from 12 yards, but one which it bounced wide of the home goal.
It was an uncharacteristically poor piece of finishing by, arguably, the best player in the Premier League at present — but one that summed up Liverpool’s toils.
They might have become even more profound, just four minutes into the second half, were it not for Adrian, as Napoli had their best chance yet closest yet to open the scoring.
The chance came from Mario Rui’s teasing cross, which floated over van Dijk for Mertens, whose athletic far-post volley looked destined for the Liverpool net until their keeper made a flying, one-handed save.
Chances, at a premium in the first half, were slowly starting to come and Sadio Mané might have taken one, sprinting clear with Salah on and two-versus-one fast break, only to mistime his pass badly and overhit the ball into a harmless area.
The graft being required of Liverpool’s experienced team — nine of whom started last season’s European final — was illustrated when Robertson and James Milner were both booked within two minutes if each other, for fouls on Callejon.
But the strain was beginning to tell on the Italians, too, as Kostas Manolas showed when he badly mistimed an attempted clearance, slicing the ball to Salah whose excellent shot drew a superb full-stretch save from Alex Meret.
Firmino also played in Mané brilliantly, the striker firing a shot too close to Meret to cause real concern — but Liverpool’s strong finale was rudely halted by the late penalty drama.
Napoli (4-4-2): Meret 7; Di Lorenzo 8, Manolas 6, Koulibaly 9, Mario Rui 7; Callejon 6, Allan 7 (Elmas 75, 6), Fabian Ruiz 7, Insigne 6 (Zielinski 66, 6); Lozano 7 (Llorente 68, 6), Mertens 6.
Subs not used: Ospina, Maksimovic, Ghoulam, Milik
Liverpool (4-3-3): Adrian 8; Alexander-Arnold 7, Matip 7, Van Dijk 8, Robertson 6; Henderson 7 (Shaqiri 86), Fabinho 7, Milner 7 (Wijnaldum 66, 6); Salah 6, Firmino 6, Mane 6.
Subs not used: Kelleher, Lovren, Gomez, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Lallana
Referee: Felix Brych (Germany) 6