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17th Sep 2019

Koulibaly’s best van Dijk impression drives Napoli past Liverpool

Kyle Picknell

How different it all could have been, with only a miraculous reflex save from Alisson preventing Liverpool from crashing out of the Champions League at the group stages last December

Instead, they faced every football fan’s Italian sweethearts Napoli, both as reigning European champions and – yeah, sorry – the single best team in Europe at this moment in time. Yes even though they lost 2-0. That’s an unofficial title, of course, and unless van Dijk starts playing like the erratic lovechild of David Luiz and Nicolas Otamendi it’s one they will likely keep.

At least until Aymeric Laporte returns from injury or Pep decides to spunk 120 to 150 to 200 million pounds (and that price will keep jumping by the looks of it) up the wall to secure the other current outstanding centre back in the world, anyway. You know, Kalidou Koulibaly, who just so happened to be their outstanding opponent on a torrid night in Naples.

History, funnily enough, has a habit of repeating itself. Early in the second period after a frantic, taut opening, Insigne fed the overlapping Mario Rui down the left. He crossed first time and van Dijk, in a manner so out of character for him the only comparison you can give is the 2002 World Cup when Paolo Maldini’s titanic oak legs appeared to fail him for the first (and only) time, couldn’t get up to head clear. Maldini had stood rooted deep into extra-time against South Korea during that infamous Round of 16 dumping. Like him, van Dijk for once looked positively mortal.

It was a kind of cognitive dissonance, watching van Dijk fail to clear a remarkably clearable cross (maybe he has recalibrated what we now consider ‘clearable’ for him) but Dries Mertens was lurking at the far post and anticipated the mistake even if it had struck nobody else as even the most remote of possibilities.

The beach-blonde Belgian hung in the air and acrobatically steered it towards the top corner on the volley. Adrian, channelling the bearded, more handsome Brazilian he is currently impersonating in the Liverpool side, entered bullet time to paw it up and over the bar. It was an impossible-looking save and 2018 briefly reared its ugly head for the Neapolitans.

Soon after, however, Napoli’s goalkeeper Alex Meret produced an equally fine stop at the other end to deny Mo Salah. It was an overtly nervous occasion throughout, very much in the pattern of last season’s 1-0 home win encounters as both sets of players appeared to either snatch at chances or delay at the most vital moment. The two squads, for the most part, appear to have each other sussed. It was inevitable that the margins would be this fine – a dodgy penalty and an error and a half from one of the world’s most consistent players.

The game turned when Andy Robertson dangled a clumsy-looking leg at Jose Callejon as he was shimmying his way into the Liverpool area. Despite it looking very, very much like a clear and obvious error to award a penalty (the replay showed there was absolutely no contact between the two players and not a penalty – that seems both clear and obvious to me) it wasn’t reversed, as the VAR system continues to, quite aggressively, suck. Hard.

Clearly and obviously it does not work. Clearly and obviously it should not concern itself with saving face for the referee instead of reversing a blatantly incorrect decision.

Regardless, Mertens ignored the fervent debate to tuck away the spot-kick and the San Paulo descended into a relentless cacophony of hisses every time Liverpool had the ball. Beyond that, they also treated the travelling Merseyside support to a version of the original (and infinitely superior) “Allez, Allez, Allez” – “Un giorno all’improvviso“, a football hooligan chant complete with overly heartfelt, emotionally tender lyrics about just how much these people love Naples. And football. It’s enough to make you weep, it really is.

Even carthouse extraordinaire Fernando Llorente didn’t dampen the mood. Having spent much of his cameo almost holding up the ball and almost getting on the end of crosses whilst looking positively striking, as is his modus operandi, he then added the proverbial icing to the proverbial cake for Carlo Ancelotti’s men, pouncing on a lackadaisical backpass from – yeah – van Dijk to slot past Adrian.

Liverpool and Klopp will look back on this game with more than a degree of annoyance. They were guilty of some rare sloppiness in the final third. Half-chances for Firmino, who glanced a free header wide after he was left unmarked from a corner, and Mane, who took a poor first touch and then could only fire straight at Meret from a tight angle, were symptomatic of their performance. Most tellingly, there was a two-on-one break between Mane and Salah which the Senegalese fluffed, overhitting a simple square ball straight out of play whilst his BFFL4EVA was crying out for a tap-in.

All in all, though, this victory was made possible by yet another imperious performance by Kalidou Koulibaly at the heart of the Napoli backline. He was immaculate in the tackle time and time again, decisive on the ball and he seems to possess that otherworldly sense of danger that only the very best centre-halves in the world have in their locker. His covering of fellow defenders and tracking of runs borders on clairvoyance and if van Dijk is a Rolls Royce, he is a Bentley. Or, like, I don’t know, the exact same Rolls Royce but with an A to Z instead of sat nav. Or something. Whatever it takes to make that tired cliche work.

The point is van Dijk has set the recent standard for world-class defenders but it’s clear that he might not be alone at the top. It was an evening to forget for the European Champions and their talisman of a centre half. It was one to remember for Napoli and their own. Until, of course, he moves to City in January.