By Richard Garnett at Anfield
There is seemingly no stopping Liverpool this season, unless you happen to be Napoli.
The self-confessed Diego Maradona worshippers of Italy’s third largest municipality have stumbled across a formula that stops Merseyside’s mentality monsters from getting a result.
Premier League bosses all over England should be taking note.
They must now go to freezing Salzburg and get a point to be certain of progression in the competition, just when a mounting fixture list is already becoming a headache for Jurgen Klopp’s squad management.
Roberto Firmino’s late goal at Crystal Palace spared the necessity to bring on Mohamed Salah at the weekend, as the Egyptian was afforded some extra rest, ensuring his was ready to go at Anfield, against undoubtedly tougher opposition.
Napoli of course, arrived here as the only team to have beaten the Reds this season in any competition, but that tells you nothing about the internal turmoil currently gripping the club.
With most of the squad fined by club president Aurelio De Laurentiis for refusing to go on a week-long training camp, following a run of poor results, the Italians could hardly have had worse preparation, not that you would know it listening to noise created by their partisan fans inside Anfield.
As you would expect, Liverpool dominated the opening period, but with a hint of vulnerability about them that only a top team could exploit.
When the hosts did give Carlo Ancelotti’s side a sniff, Dries Mertens saw his shot blocked before Fabian Ruiz blazed over the rebound.
Full back Mario Rui tried to catch Alisson Becker of his line with an outrageous shot form the halfway line, but if the order was to shoot on sight, this particular effort was too ambitious by far.
When James Milner and Firmino combined with two flicks of South American ilk, it was the Englishman who found himself through on goal, but unable to sort his feet out, the chance was wasted.
When Gli Azzurri took the lead in the 21st minute the goal came in bizarre but increasingly familiar circumstances.
As Virgil Van Dijk went to ground under a half-hearted aerial challenge from Mertens the Belgian took full advantage to collect a ball over the top and with his Dutch marker still on the floor by the half way line, arrowed the ball past Alisson into the bottom corner.
The Napoli supporters in the Anfield Road end celebrated wildly but their jubilation was halted not once, but twice, as VAR checks were made; first for a possible foul by Mertens and then for offside.
Eventually neither were given and the goal stood, but supporters in the stadium – and reporters alike – were left in no man’s land as the reviews were carried out consecutively with apparent mystery.
A little shaken after falling behind, it wasn’t too long before Liverpool got back in their stride and finished the half laying siege on the Napoli goal.
The attacking trio of Salah, Firmino and Sadio Mane took it in turns to exhibit their devastating talent but none could make the breakthrough.
Anfield had cut a subdued atmosphere in the first half but tempers started to fray as referee Carlos Del Cerro Montero failed to punish Napoli for robust challenges on Liverpool’s players, in particular Mane.
The end result was a booking for Klopp and a crescendo of boos for the referee at half time.
Ancelotti would surely have been relieved to get to the break with his lead still intact, after Liverpool laid siege on the Napoli goal in the final 10 minutes of the first half.
That said, the visitors were defending magnificently in a compact shape, held together by their man mountain of a captain, Kalidou Koulibaly.
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was introduced early in the second half for the stuttering Joe Gomez, as Klopp further boosted his offensive artillery.
His impact was instant, as the in-form midfielder stuck a perfectly floated cross onto the head of Firmino, only for the Brazilian to nod wide with the goal at his mercy.
When the equaliser finally arrived via the head of Dejan Lovren from a Milner corner, it was almost a given that a VAR check would follow.
But despite the Croatian having an arm on his marker, the goal stood, infuriating the protesting Italians on the pitch.
A marginal decision, but in this new era of analysts deciding matches by fine margins, it is oddly reassuring to know that VAR is as up for levelling out decisions as a traditional referee used to be.
Klopp reshuffled again, bringing on Trent Alexander-Arnold for Milner, but as the game ticked into the final 10 minutes, the atmosphere inside the stadium was once again subdued.
‘You’re Liverpool – make something happen’, seemed to be the message from the stands.
That resignation was reflected on the pitch as Napoli comfortably closed out the game for a well-earned away draw.
Liverpool will once again have to do it the hard way, but history shows that is normally when they come into their own.
They’ll be glad to see the back of Napoli for a while at least.