Liverpool start the defence of their Champions League crown on Tuesday night with a trip to Italy to take on Napoli.
The Reds will need no reminding of the Partenopei’s threat after being floored by Lorenzo Insigne’s last-minute strike in the corresponding group stage fixture at the Stadio San Paolo last season.
Here, the PA news agency takes a look at a side that have finished as runners-up to Juventus in three of the most recent four Serie A seasons.
Always the bridesmaid
Liverpool fans could perhaps sympathise more than most about Napoli’s struggles to get their hands on top-flight silverware. Not since Diego Maradona was close to his pomp in 1989/90 – coincidentally the last time Liverpool finished top of the domestic pile – have the Azzurri lifted the Scudetto. Napoli have come closest to at least putting a chink in Juventus’ Serie A hegemony in recent years, running them close in the season before last, where they led the way for much of the campaign only for the Bianconeri to prevail by four points.
As one of only three managers to have won the Champions League on three occasions, Carlo Ancelotti appeared an upgrade when he replaced Chelsea-bound Maurizio Sarri last year. However, the Italian was unable to transform Napoli’s fortunes in his first season in charge as a Cristiano Ronaldo-inspired Juve cruised to yet another league title. Ancelotti is almost beyond reproach having lifted major honours at AC Milan, Chelsea, Paris St Germain, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich, and Napoli will be hoping for a sprinkling of his stardust this term.
Only last week, Ancelotti was raging at the state of the dressing rooms at the San Paolo following renovation work that meant Napoli played the opening two matches of the season away from home. “You can build a house in two months, but they are not capable of renovating the dressing rooms. I’m shocked at the incompetence of the people in charge of the work,” Ancelotti said in a statement on the club website, which posted a video of the unfinished changing areas. Those concerns have since died down following Napoli’s 2-0 home win over Sampdoria at the weekend.
While Virgil Van Dijk marshals Liverpool’s defence, the formidable Kalidou Koulibaly is equally important to the Partenopei. The 28-year-old was named the best defender in Serie A last season, which allows him to wear a celebratory crest on his shirt in this campaign, and he will be key to shackling Liverpool’s vaunted front trio of Mohamed Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane. Ancelotti rates the Senegalese as among the best defenders he has worked with, saying earlier this year he is belongs in the class of Paolo Maldini, Lilian Thuram and John Terry.
Koulibaly has yet to hit his straps this season and was visibly crestfallen when his last-gasp own-goal handed rivals Juventus a 4-3 victory after Napoli had come from three goals down. Napoli were on the right side of a seven-goal thriller in their Serie A season-opener at Fiorentina but their faltering back-line in their opening two fixtures left Ancelotti to lament: “Clearly there are problems.” A clean sheet in a more routine victory over Sampdoria at the weekend will ease worries but the acid test of Salah, Firmino and Mane awaits.
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