The two teams meet at the San Paolo tomorrow night in the opening game of Champions League Group E. The clubs were paired together at this stage of the competition last season and Napoli came very close to knocking Jurgen Klopp’s team out at Anfield in December. Alisson Becker’s last-gasp save from Arkadiusz Milik preserved Liverpool’s 1-0 victory and their place in the knockout rounds. The Serie A side were consigned to the Europa League while Alisson and his team-mates went on to Madrid and glory. “We survived a really difficult situation,” Fabinho said. “After that we were full of confidence to go all the way to the final.
Carlo Ancelotti felt that his side were the better team over the two group games – they won 1-0 in the San Paolo – and it is true that Napoli caught Liverpool before they got into their stride in Europe. Klopp’s team lost all three away games in the group stage. They will start their defence of the trophy with more intensity under the shadow of Vesuvius.
Liverpool are different from a year ago. The victory over Tottenham Hotspur in June – and their performances domestically in pushing Manchester City right to the line in the Premier League – swept away many insecurities and doubts. Ancelotti was humiliated by Liverpool in Istanbul in the Champions League final in 2005 but his Milan team bounced back to exact retribution in Athens two years later. It will not be so easy for the Napoli coach to inflict vengeance this time around. Klopp said his side were “not smart or calm” enough in the San Paolo 11 months ago. They are now cleverer and more composed. Success has that effect on teams.
More problematic is the situation off the field. Anfield has had an uneasy relationship with Italian clubs that stretches back for 35 years. Heysel, where 39 people were killed before the 1985 European Cup final against Juventus, will always colour perceptions and the culpability of some Liverpool supporters is undeniable but although that was the low point, problems predate the disaster. Violence by Roma fans when they lost the previous year’s final in the Italian capital has cast a long shadow. The assault on Sean Cox by Roma ultras outside the Kop two years ago attests to the continuing aversion towards Liverpool on the Tiber.
The issues with Napoli are more recent but no less disturbing. Three visiting fans were stabbed in Naples before the Europa League tie in 2010. Neapolitans were on the receiving end at the return leg at Anfield, where there were ugly scenes in and around the ground.
On Merseyside, this feels like ancient history but in Naples the resentments linger. Last year a Liverpool fan was hospitalised and many supporters – and some journalists – returned home with tales of lucky escapes. Advice given to travelling fans last week suggested that they remain in their hotels to eat and drink and avoid walking the streets of Naples. It seems unconscionable that, for Uefa’s showpiece competition, the safety of supporters cannot be guaranteed.
There have been numerous incidents surrounding Napoli, Roma and Lazio in particular over recent years that should have provoked action from European football’s ruling body but they have largely been ignored. The practice of puncicate – stabbing a rival supporter in the backside – continues to have a hold in the culture of some ultra groups. It can be a nervous, buttock-clenching experience around some Italian stadiums, the San Paolo being one of them.
Liverpool’s allocation of 2,558 for Napoli has sold out but an unusually large number of spares appear to be available. Those eligible need to purchase tickets to ensure they maintain their credits for other European matches but it may be that some go unused.
The perceived threat is not the only reason that supporters might want to avoid the game. One of the flaws of the Champions League format is it too often pairs teams together. Salzburg and Gent are more attractive because it is Liverpool’s first visit. Even so, the dark warnings from the authorities are offputting for many. Uefa need to be stronger on incidents of violence against visiting fans so these situations do not occur.
This is the start of a long journey that Liverpool dream will end in Istanbul. Everyone connected with the club is hoping it passes off with the minimum of fuss on and off the pitch.