Kelly Carragher Skrtel Konchesky
Jovanovic Shelvey Babel
Another 0-0, but nowhere near as frustrating as the one against Utrecht. That's partly down to the strength of the squad and partly down to diminishing expectations, but this time, when Hodgson says it's a well-earned draw, he'll actually be right.
Despite the relative inexperience in the first XI, this was as near as Liverpool's been to last season's Fulham squad. Liverpool basically shut up shop, aided by Napoli's profligacy in attack and a Konchesky clearance off the line on the stroke of halftime, while carving out just two good chances at the other end, both in the second half. Babel and Jovanovic started as inside-out wingers, each cutting in on their opposite foot, as did Davies and Duff last season, although both changed positions – along with the impressive Shelvey – throughout the match.
Once again, Liverpool were absolutely insipid in attack, toothless in the extreme with Ngog massively isolated, but Liverpool were never going to offer much going forward in Naples with this manager. Shelvey registered the only shot on goal in the first half, a strike from distance easily smothered by De Sanctis, but Napoli rarely tested Reina as well. As expected, with three center-backs marshaling the lone Ngog, Liverpool had the numbers advantage over the rest of the pitch until Campagnaro started getting forward down Liverpool's right. And as usual, Liverpool only looked shaky on set plays, specifically corners: first in the 18th, with two half-chances spurned before finally clearing their lines, then in first minute of stoppage time, when Konchesky saved the game after Cavani beat Carragher and Poulsen deflected Hamsik's shot for the left back to clear. On first viewing, it appeared that the ball may have crossed the line, but subsequent replays proved that the official on the goal line made the right decision. UEFA's additional linesman actually matter. Who would have thought?
It didn't get much better in the second half, even though Liverpool finally took advantage of an increasingly open game. Babel had a glorious chance in the 69th, sprung by Jovanovic on the counter, only to see De Sanctis save the low shot with his legs. Ngog almost created something from nothing in the 81st, cleverly controlling Jovanovic's cross before turning the center-back, only to see his on-target shot blocked. Napoli had more and more possession, but they continually failed to find a final ball. It was nice to see that happen to the opposition for a change.
With Blackburn on Sunday, pre-planned substitutions were made in addition to the key players rested. It was strange to see Kyrgiakos come on for Carragher at halftime, while Aurelio replaced Konchesky in the 65th. Yes, Hodgson actually made changes before the 70th minute (with Cole coming on for Babel in the 77th), but neither were due to injury, and it made little sense for Carragher to play 45 minutes before ostensibly being rested. On the other hand, Aurelio replacing Konchesky, finally fully fit, will always be welcomed, even considering Konchesky's contribution to today's result.
Yes, it's a good point in a very difficult away match, even if Napoli made it easier than expected. Shelvey and Spearing did well, Poulsen didn't embarrass himself, and Liverpool didn't stupidly concede. Nonetheless, it's still seven games in a row without a win; United, Northampton, Sunderland, Utrecht, Blackpool, Everton, and Napoli isn't exactly a murderer's row either. Liverpool's atop the group with five points, compared to Utrecht and Napoli's three, and I'm not complaining about the result, but it still feels like we're settling for mediocrity.
Today saw some signs of progress, but with Blackburn likely to press furiously and fight for every loose ball, Sunday's match should look nothing like today's. Liverpool's been at its "best" in Europe because the play has been far more patient, which allows the two banks of four to get into position. And in nearing Fulham's archetype, the question remains whether we'll ever see enough progress under this manager.