Liverpool’s continuation in the Champions League is on the line when they host Napoli at Anfield on Tuesday (20:00 GMT, live on BT Sport).
Liverpool made it all the way through to last year’s final, but defeat away to Paris Saint-Germain on Group C’s penultimate matchday a couple of weeks back has left them requiring victory against Napoli in order to avoid an early elimination from this year’s competition.
Napoli top the group on nine points, ahead of PSG on eight, Liverpool on six and Red Star Belgrade on four. There are various possible permutations but the one underlying constant is that anything less than all three points on Tuesday will end Liverpool’s participation. Even a victory may not be enough depending on the manner in which it is achieved.
The two results that will definitely send Liverpool through regardless of the result between Red Star and PSG in the group’s other match are a 1-0 victory or any other triumph by two or more goals. A win by any margin will be sufficient if PSG lose or draw at Red Star – on points (nine to eight) in the former case, by virtue of a better head-to-head in a three-way tie between them, PSG and Napoli in the latter.
The target is therefore clearly defined for Jurgen Klopp and his team: win at all costs.
Outside of Europe, that has been something they have been pretty good at so far this season. Saturday’s 4-0 win away to Bournemouth, powered by a Mohamed Salah hat-trick, was their 13th in their 16 league matches to date. They are the Premier League’s only undefeated side, and also jumped ahead of Manchester City to the top of the table with that victory.
Liverpool are a more mature side this season. The defensive stability gradually gained over the course of the previous campaign has now solidified into one of the best defensive units in the league. New goalkeeper Allison has proved to be a significant upgrade. Their approach is a tad more conservative, but it is still allied to a potent attack. Their employment of a specific throw-in coach shows a team seeking small gains wherever they are to be found.
All of that hasn’t quite transferred to Europe, however. Their position in the third pot of seeds always meant they were likely to receive a difficult draw, and so it has proved. While a pair of away defeats and a home win in their matches against PSG and Napoli to date is about par, it is their loss away to Red Star that has really complicated things for them.
Napoli travel to Anfield in a much better position, knowing that a draw or any one-goal loss in which they score will be sufficient to see them through. They failed to make it out of the group last season and to do so this time around given the difficulty of the draw would represent a strong feather in the cap of new coach Carlo Ancelotti.
Juventus remain formidable domestic opponents who will prove difficult to overhaul, particularly given that Ancelotti has rarely specialised in winning league titles. If they can make it through to the knockout rounds of the Champions League, Napoli will not be a side that any of the traditional powers of European football will look forward to facing.
Ancelotti has fiddled around a bit with the formula of previous coach Maurizio Sarri, now of Chelsea. The usual alignment has shifted from a 4-3-3 to more of a 4-4-2. Napoli’s share of the ball has decreased and they have been a tad more passive out of possession. Their attacking output is similar to last season but there has been a slight regression defensively.
With that said, Napoli are still very difficult opponents, and Liverpool will have to be at their best if they are to secure the result they need on Tuesday. Home advantage gives them the edge, and they are the most likely victors, but it is difficult to say with full confidence that they will be able to get the exact outcome they need to progress.