For a club who base so much of their reputation on European pedigree, Liverpool have reason to fear their trip to Napoli, particularly in the context of their previous visits to Serie A clubs in European competition.
The early stages particularly, have been cruel to the Reds, but their story in Italy began back in 1965 with a controversial defeat to Inter at the Giuseppe Meazza Stadium; a 3-0 reverse to overcome a 3-1 deficit from the first leg. Bill Shankly’s sides did not often lose but he seemed to struggle to overcome Italian opposition.
While Italian sides came to feature regularly when the Reds progressed to the latter stages of competitions, they were infrequently brought together before Christmas – though it has happened a few times before.
Shankly had an opportunity to put things right just a year later, when his Liverpool side were drawn against Juventus in the European Cup Winners’ Cup first round. Travelling out to the first leg in Turin, the Reds were in good spirits, having beaten Everton in the Merseyside Derby the weekend before, a resounding 5-0 victory that was to feature in terrace songs in years to come.
The Bianconeri, by contrast, had just ‘enjoyed’ a third 0-0 draw in a row, Varese following Foggia and Atalanta. Their defence had yet to be breached, even if the 1-0 opening day win over Napoli provided the only goal in the first four games; perhaps a low-scoring affair was inevitable.
The game proceeded in just that manner, Juventus keeping well within themselves, but pushing forward a little more than a Liverpool side who were condemned for their negative play in the Italian press afterwards.
With the Reds’ only real outlets being the right-hand pairing of Alf Arrowsmith and Tommy Smith, the hosts were able to ensure their defence remained unbreached, but found breaking through the rearguard at the other end just as tricky. As the game progressed into the last ten minutes, still scoreless, Juventus rallied again.
Giancarlo Bercellino broke free, and fed a pass across the box beyond Liverpool goalkeeper Tommy Lawrence to the feet of Giampaolo Menichelli to slot it into the net. The scrambling Lawrence flung himself of the ball, forcing what looked a certain goal away.
Less than a minute had passed before Gianfranco Leoncini picked up the ball just beyond the centre circle. He stepped forward around ten yards, and unleashed a fierce drive into the top right corner of the goal, Lawrence helpless this time. Juventus closed ranks, and Liverpool were left to rue what might have been – learning from their mistakes enough to earn a 2-0 victory in the Anfield return.
Some 44 years later, Liverpool found themselves in Florence in September, with Rafael Benitez looking to out-think Cesare Prandelli in the Viola dugout.
A run of five victories had the Reds believing they might be on to something special, and 2,500 made the trip to the Stadio Artemio Franchi, which had removed the cages that usually housed away fans.
By half time, the game was over, Stevan Jovetic embarrassing a defence that was missing the protective shield of Javier Mascherano not once but twice. First, the teenager was put through by Cristiano Zanetti to roll home a precise effort past Pepe Reina. Later in the half, he doubled the hosts’ lead after turning a Juan Vargas cross into the goal during another period of Fiorentina pressure.
The match was to kickstart the Viola’s campaign after an opening day defeat to Lyon, and they went on to top Group E after winning five games before going out on away goals to Bayern in the round of 16 . Liverpool rather spluttered to third place, losing to Fiorentina at Anfield; they ended up third and dropped into the Europa League, losing to Atletico Madrid in the semi-final.
Fast forward 13 months, and Liverpool were back in Italy again, visiting the Stadio San Paolo to face Napoli in the Europa League group stage. By this point, Roy Hodgson’s side were under a fair amount of pressure back home, and restless fans demanded a performance.
Instead, they saw a team set up to emulate Shankly’s trip to Juventus all those years ago. Hodgson decided to rest Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres to keep them fresh for a game against Blackburn Rovers, and set his side up to keep Napoli at bay, fending off Walter Mazzarri’s side at every turn, save for a squeaky moment when Paul Konchesky flicked a Marek Hamsik that looked goalbound away from the target.
Unlike the game at the Stadio Comunale, this time the game plan paid off. The Partenopei showed flashes of attacking intent in the first half, but after the interval seemed to settle into the inevitable 0-0 that came about. With Edinson Cavani and Ezequiel Lavezzi misfiring, despite a few efforts during the first half, the longer the match went on, the more Liverpool looked like winning it.
The draw ended up being a footnote in both sides’ campaigns, as they progressed to the knockout stages, only to be knocked out by Villarreal, in Napoli’s case, and Braga, in the round of 16, for Liverpool.
This week’s game will neither make nor break either side’s season, but it seems likely the Partenopei will have to overcome a Liverpool side who have a history of coming to Italy not throwing punches, but making blocks.