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Why Liverpool face major threat on first stop on road to European glory

Liverpool's Mohamed Salah and Luis Diaz during training.© Action Images via Reuters

Richard JollyUK Independent

Jurgen Klopp’s response to defeat in May’s Champions League final may have done wonders for Turkey’s tourism industry but it also showed much about his psychology. “Where’s it next season? Istanbul? Book the hotel.”

Klopp tends to turn a negative into a positive. In the process, he can feel prophetic.

The morning after his previous Champions League final loss to Real Madrid, in 2018, he wondered at Kyiv airport if Liverpool would return to such a stage 12 months later. They duly did, winning in 2019.

Liverpool can now hope history repeats itself again, that a brush with glory one year will be followed by an embrace the next.

Klopp can excel at engendering optimism but there were few reasons for happiness on an awful night in Paris.

Certainly not for the supporters who were mistreated by French police, whose failings were compounded by Uefa’s, and for whom tonight’s trip to Naples, with its own reputation for intimidation, scarcely represented an ideal return to Europe.

On the field, Liverpool could have other reasons for regret: in 2018, they plotted a highly entertaining path around Europe, scoring goals galore but, as they finished 25 points behind Manchester City, they were not the continent’s outstanding team.

They entered the final as underdogs. Last season, when they were a couple of games from pre-eminence on four fronts, they might have arrived in Paris as the finest and the favourites.

A statistic to support that theory was that they won all six Champions League away games, scoring at least two goals in each, before they drew a blank on neutral territory in France.

Whereas in 2018, there was no doubt they had responded to disappointment by strengthening, with the arrivals of Alisson, Fabinho and Naby Keita, now there is the possibility they are weaker, and not merely because Keita remains an injury-prone enigma who has not even been named in their squad for the group stages.

Sadio Mane scored in both legs of last season’s semi-final against Villarreal and he should be in Champions League action in Italy tonight, but for Bayern Munich against Internazionale, rather than for Liverpool 400 miles further south.

That the Senegalese also struck in both legs of the semi-final, plus the final, in 2018, and that he was inches and a sensational Thibaut Courtois save from scoring in May’s meeting with Real, offers a reminder of his big-match pedigree.

That Liverpool tend to seek to recruit players on the way up from lesser clubs means reinforcements can lack such a distinguished CV. Darwin Nunez at least got a group-stage brace against Barcelona and scored home and away against Liverpool in April’s quarter-final for Benfica, but his brief time on Merseyside has been interrupted by suspension.

If it will take time for concerns about his temperament to fade; another issue is if Liverpool’s chemistry has been dented by Mane’s departure.

They often start seasons superbly under Klopp.

They won their first six league matches in 2018-’19; the corresponding return is two victories from six now.

Mohamed Salah tends to begin campaigns with flurries of goals and delivered five in his first six league games last season and six the previous year, but this time round he has only two.

He is not alone in looking below his best. The same could be said of Virgil van Dijk and Fabinho, pillars of the side, and Trent Alexander-Arnold, often the creator-in-chief.

Roberto Firmino’s renaissance, Harvey Elliott and Fabio Carvalho’s abundant promise and the hints Luis Diaz is becoming more prolific have come amid a more cloudy picture.

It may not help to have probably the toughest game in the group first.

Liverpool lost in the Diego Armando Maradona Stadium – as it has since been rebranded – in 2018, failing to even register a shot on target; it feels unsurprising to look back and realise that Keita got injured that day.

It took a brilliant late save from Alisson in the rematch to ensure they even qualified from the group.

They lost in Naples again in 2019 when, as now, it was the first game of the group, though they went on to pick up 13 points from their next five fixtures.

And if many of their past tormentors – Kalidou Koulibaly, Dries Mertens, Lorenzo Insigne, Allan, Marek Hamsik – now form part of Napoli’s past, with the first three a trio of high-profile departures this year, in Victor Osimhen and Khvicha Kvaratskhelia there are new threats, even if the Nigerian is a doubt.

In Luciano Spalletti, there is a manager who eliminated Liverpool from Europe in his time at Zenit St Petersburg.

It was before Klopp’s time but it all contributes to a difficult backdrop for a team who are yet to win away in the Premier League and whose second match, against Ajax, scarcely looks easy either.

Liverpool have passed such tests before.

Klopp deemed this group as “a proper, proper challenge; we did not ask for any favours and we have not been given”.

He could have said the same last year, when they were pitted against AC Milan, Atletico Madrid and Porto and became the first English team to claim the maximum 18 points.

But Liverpool had more cohesion and momentum then than they do now.

Now, before they can plan for one of their favourite cities, Istanbul, they have to negotiate a trip to one that brings fewer happy memories. (© Independent News Service)

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