Sanjay Nair takes a look at the mammoth task awaiting Liverpool in the Champions League this evening as Napoli look to block their progress in Europe.
It is almost 14 years to the day when Liverpool went into the final group match of their Champions League campaign against Olympiakos needing to win 1-0 or by 2 clear goals.
On that night it went right down to the wire with club legend Steven Gerrard popping up from 25 yards to belt home one of his trademark screamers and take Liverpool through to the Round of 16 and eventually to the ultimate glory on that famous night in Istanbul 6 months later.
Tonight, Liverpool are faced with the exact scenario, only this time against an opposition of much higher quality in Napoli. An intriguing tie which is tough to call, with the group still wide open, might ultimately boil to that single moment of brilliance from either side.
The Anfield atmosphere
There is no doubt that no matter what the quality of football that will be on view, the atmosphere in and around the stadium will be at its raucous best.
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Napoli are going to feel the full force of the Anfield faithful and will find its perhaps one of the most intimidating in European football. In Ancelotti, they have a manager who has had his fair share of it during his time in England, but Champions League nights as we all know are a different proposition in front of these fans.
Many a team has come to Anfield with huge reputations and unmistakable talent only to have succumbed to our fantastic fans. How effectively Ancelotti can keep his players calm under such huge pressure will perhaps be THE key factor in this match.
Liverpool have won 9 out of the 10 games played at Anfield, both in the Premier League and Champions League, with the only draw coming against Manchester City. Cardiff City and PSG are the only teams to have breached the defence in those 10 games.
A fortress superbly led by Virgil van Dijk and bailed out at crucial moments by the goalkeeping heroics of Alisson will take some beating despite the absence through injury of the hitherto outstanding Joe Gomez. But in Dejan Lovren, who was a key component of last year’s run to the final or the in-form Joel Matip, Liverpool possess able replacements.
An average of 2.2 goals per match played at home this season augurs well for a team that needs to win by 2 clear goals should Napoli find a way to score. The weekend hattrick for Mo Salah and Firmino’s return to form could not have come at a more appropriate time as well for the Reds who will be looking for that early goal to settle the nerves and take control of proceedings.
Despite Carlo Ancelotti stating that Napoli are not coming to Anfield to park the bus, there is no hiding the fact that Napoli only need a point to go through.
A safety-first approach and to try and hit on the counter would be the obvious way to prevent Liverpool getting an early foothold in the match. Again, Napoli hold all the cards and know Liverpool have to score to go through and hence might leave a few open spaces for them to exploit.
Only an extremely brave manager would opt for an open game from the word go with so much at stake, especially when he could potentially be grilled back home should it backfire. Liverpool obviously would prefer Ancelotti sticks to his words and plays his normal attacking game.
The comparisons to that memorable night all those years ago is eerily similar. The need of the hour and the prize for the victors on the night is just as similar and important as it was.
Dec 8th 2004 was the night that was to prove the turning point in Liverpool’s successful Champions League campaign that season. Which of our present Reds will emulate Stevie G and carry us through on the night of Dec 11th 2018 is what all of Liverpool will be waiting for with bated breath!