Rafa BenÝtez in 'The Times'

The spanish manager talks about the incoming Champions League match of Napoli against Liverpool

07/09/2022The Times


Rafael Benítez coached Liverpool to Champions League success in 2005 and spent two seasons in charge at Napoli from 2013 to 2015, winning the Coppa Italia and Italian Super
Cup. Here, he analyses tonight’s group A match.

New kid on the block

Khvicha Kvaratskhelia will be an unfamiliar name to many, but the 21-year-old poses a huge threat. He has made an enormous impact since joining Napoli in the summer from the Georgian side Dinamo Batumi. Previously at Rubin Kazan, he returned to his homeland after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Friends in Italy tell me that he is the best player in Italy right now. He has been playing as a left winger but he can use both feet, dribble on both flanks and finish. He has pace and he wants to make his mark.

On Saturday, he scored the winner against Lazio, his fourth goal in five appearances. He is an excellent talent doing so well so soon after moving to Italy. Napoli have a good recruitment record. When I was in charge, we signed Gonzalo Higuaín, Jorginho, Kalidou Koulibaly, Dries Mertens, Raúl Albiol and José Callejón, which raised the quality of the team.

Some of those players sold for big profits, such as Higuaín, who later joined Juventus for €90 million (about £76 million), and Jorginho and Koulibaly who moved to Chelsea for £50 million and £34 million respectively.

The loss of Koulibaly has been offset by the signing of the South Korean Kim Min-jae, who is physical and seems to have a good mentality.

Spalletti stays calm

Along with the departure of Koulibaly, Napoli lost Fabián Ruiz to Paris Saint-Germain. But their
experienced coach, Luciano Spalletti 63, will stick to his methods.

The Italian has belief in what he is doing; when Napoli were losing 1-0 to Lazio, there was no panic, and that helped them come from behind.

He has been using a 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3 system with Stanislav Lobotka, who is mobile and a good passer,
playing as a holding midfielder with André-Frank Zambo Anguissa, once of Fulham, and Piotr Zielinski more advanced. Sometimes Anguissa will play as a second pivot.

The danger for Liverpool is everywhere. The right back Giovanni Di Lorenzo loves to go forward, like Trent Alexander-Arnold does, and the right wingers Hirving Lozano and Matteo Politano both have pace. They are dangerous in the wide areas along with Kvaratskhelia.

It will be a boost for Liverpool if the striker Victor Osimhen does not recover in time from a muscle injury he picked up on Saturday. He is able to create his own chances because he is quick and can run in behind defenders, but he is also capable of holding the ball up.

Spalletti likes to use all five substitutes. Napoli have a good squad and can bring on players such as Eljif Elmas, who can play as a second striker, and Giacomo Raspadori.

Flying high

Napoli are second in Serie A. They are unbeaten in five matches, have scored the most goals (12) and have conceded the second fewest (four). I have been analysing matches in the league with the Italian software company Kama.Sport and aspects of Napoli’s performances stand out.

Spalletti likes to build from the back — statistics show they are first in Serie A when it comes to building out of defence — and they also top the stats when it comes to recovering the ball. In other words they win the ball back quickly.

In addition, last season Napoli were also the third-best team when it came to creating a chance or finishing off a move.

Of course, these are the strengths of Liverpool too. Both teams like to have possession and both teams can play on the counterattack, so it should be an interesting game.

No need for Klopp to panic

There has been a lot of scrutiny on Liverpool’s start to the season. This is not an easy game, especially playing in Naples.

But I don’t have major concerns about Jürgen Klopp’s side. People have asked me, ‘Are they tired from last season?’ Look at the number of chances they had in the final 20 minutes against Everton and that answers that: no, they’re not tired.

There is increasing scrutiny on Mohamed Salah but he is, in many ways, a victim of the standards he has set. Mário Rui, the Napoli left back, will hardly be looking forward to facing the Egyptian.

Injuries in midfield have been unsettling and Darwin Núñez is still settling in. I think he will score a lot of goals for Liverpool and that he provides them with a different dynamic to Roberto Firmino, who likes to drop off, create superiority in the middle of the pitch and help his team-mates score. Núñez always wants to be in the penalty box. The Uruguayan needs a little time and Liverpool just need a goal to boost their confidence.