This was the Napoli we’ve been waiting for. Finally, a sign that pre-season expectations weren’t totally wide of the mark.
Anyone with an appreciation for the art of defending would’ve been left salivating by the prospect of what Carlo Ancelotti’s side might offer in his second season in charge after their performance against Liverpool.
Kalidou Koulibaly’s abilities are no secret to those of us who have been watching his remarkable performances in a blue shirt over the last five years but some new players were brought in over the summer to complement the Senegalese giant.
Kostas Manolas, consistently one of the strongest centre-backs in Serie A in recent seasons, was brought in from Roma to partner him.
The impressive Giovanni Di Lorenzo was snapped up from Empoli to strengthen a weak link at right-back, lining up ahead of a rapidly improving young goalkeeper in Alex Meret. The new defensive unit was a mouth-watering prospect.
The Koulibaly-Manolas partnership in particular was being lauded in many quarters as potentially the best in Italy. Some even talked it up as one of the best on the continent.
The problem was, that argument soon looked flawed as the defensive duo failed to stop seven goals being conceded in their opening two league games of the season against Fiorentina and Juventus. Koulibaly went as far as to volley a stoppage time winner into his own net in Turin.
It wasn’t exactly an auspicious start, but Tuesday night’s victory over the reigning European champions provided an abundance of reasons for Partenopei fans to be optimistic for the future.
Napoli put in an intelligent, composed and clinical performance. They played like a big team and as a result were rewarded with another win over Jurgen Klopp’s side, who they beat 1-0 at the same stage last season before thrashing them 3-0 in a pre-season friendly in Edinburgh.
But it wouldn’t have been achieved without the defensive unit stepping up to the challenge in style. Manolas started as he meant to go on, batting away crosses with the casual irritation of someone swatting a fly, and when he made one crucial error by losing the ball in a dangerous position, he was bailed out by the ever-alert Meret.
The full-backs, Di Lorenzo and Mario Rui, were superb in nullifying the threat of Liverpool wingers Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah. Rui in particular was the subject of much praise in the press room after the game, with some local journalists in disbelief that he was capable of producing such a performance based on past evidence.
But this was the Koulibaly show. The Senegal international was at his dominant best, timing challenges to perfection, using his strength to good effect, bursting forward when given the opportunity and looking to pick passes and launch counter-attacks.
His arm-wrestling match with Virgil van Dijk was fascinating to watch as the two centre-backs waited to see who would blink first. In the end it was the Dutchman, who made a catastrophic error for Fernando Llorente’s late winner.
One performance of this quality doesn’t automatically mean Koulibaly is a better player than his Liverpool counterpart, but it was quite a recovery from the horror show he suffered against Juventus and a reminder to Napoil’s domestic rivals that they are going to need to bring their A-game to stand a chance of taking points from the San Paolo this season.
Other than the two goals, the biggest cheers of the San Paolo crowd were generated by Koulibaly’s tackles. If he, Manolas, Di Lorenzo and the rest use this performance as a marker for the rest of the season, those fans will have plenty more to celebrate before the end of the season.