“Book your hotel for Istanbul,” Jurgen Klopp said in the emotional aftermath of defeat in last May’s Paris final.
After Liverpool’s worst performance of the Champions League era, it would be wise to ensure any such accommodation provides full refunds for cancellation.
Liverpool were a pale imitation of themselves in Naples, suffering one of their most humbling ever-European losses on an evening when the 4-1 scoreline should have been worse.
They were defensively inept and – aside from another Luis Diaz spectacular when the game was already lost – punchless upfront. After seven years in which Klopp has taken pride in building a side who are ‘nightmare’ to play against, Napoli shrugged them aside with ease.
The UEFA report into the final defeat suggested Liverpool had run out of steam after 63 games. Worryingly, they could reach the same conclusion after just seven fixtures in this one. The final was just 102 days ago. Already it feels like it was in a different Anfield era, the disintegration extreme.
To say Liverpool looked disorganised, dishevelled and – in the worst cases – disinterested, especially during a shambolic first half in Stadio Diego Armando Maradona, barely touched the surface. The most damning observation is the team does not look fit enough, as if they are still in pre-season.
No Liverpool side in the Klopp era has been so disrobed. Had Napoli scored six before half-time it would have been a fair reflection of their dominance. By the time they struck their fourth just after half-time they had already missed a penalty, hit the post and had a shot cleared off the line.
Where to begin with the litany of structural and individual errors in the shambolic first half? Forty-two seconds is as good a place as any. That was when Napoli striker Victor Osimhen beat what once resembled a Liverpool offside trap, dribbled past Alisson Becker and hit the post from a tight angle.
The warning was not heeded as Napoli broke clear again on four minutes, Liverpool adopting the strange strategy of being pedestrian with the ball and in first gear when meekly seeking to retrieve it. Piotr Zielinski – once a Liverpool target – gleefully took advantage to pick a spot in Alisson’s bottom corner which only James Milner’s hand could prevent opening the scoring. Zielinski duly obliged with the subsequent penalty.
Every Liverpool breakdown in the hosts’ half ended with a clear chance at the other, Joe Gomez, Trent Alexander-Arnold and Virgil Van Dijk as vulnerable as they have ever been in this troubling run of form.
There was a reprieve for Klopp when Osimhen’s next foray was ended by Van Dijk and a 16th minute VAR review culminated in a second penalty. Bizarrely, Zielinski stepped aside for Osimhen who struck tamely at Alisson. No matter. Liverpool obliged with more defensive absurdity, Gomez again losing possession on the halfway line to set off Kvaratskhelia. Then Liverpool’s defenders might as well have watched and applauded as Zielinski completed a one-two with Zambo Anguisse and Alisson was beaten at his near post.
Whatever hopes Klopp had of regrouping at half-time were undermined by the third, Gomez again at fault as substitute Giovanni Simeone – son of Diego – tapped in.
Gomez was inevitably replaced at half-time for Joel Matip. It was surprising he was the only one hooked. Zielinski’s second two minutes after half time ensured it would not make a difference, although Diaz – the only Liverpool outfield player to emerge with any credit – at least offered a swift response, cutting in from the left and finding the bottom right corner.
For the first time in his reign, Klopp looked helpless, standing with his arms behind his back on the touchline and wondering what has become of a team once so difficult to beat.
Liverpool are tolerant of occasional transitional periods, especially those caused by the loss of key players through injury or transfer. But an evening such as this cannot be solely down to a lack of a midfielder. Something has gone terribly and unexpectedly wrong in the weeks since Liverpool purred in the Community Shield.
The last time Klopp saw his side disintegrate like this there were mitigating circumstances such as a lack of centre-backs and fans. This feels more serious, a challenge to his abilities to identify the roots of an issue which has seen his side drop several levels in a matter of weeks.
Off the early pace in the title race, there is a sharp and extreme reunion with their former selves needed if those supremely optimistic Istanbul hotel bookings are not going to be reallocated.