I don’t quite like making home-and-away comparisons for matches, especially when so much time has passed, but it’s hard to resist looking back to our 2-0 win over Napoli as we prepare for today’s second leg. It was arguably our most impressive performance to date, as we went ahead early and dominated the rest of the match. However, the advantages of playing at home, not to mention having more time adjust to their new manager or the urgency of needing to win, should feed Napoli’s performance today. However, if we can exploit Napoli’s weaknesses, we should be able to reproduce that successful outcome if not the dominating performance itself. As we look for goals, there are two factors, and two players, I look to: will it be Giroud exploiting Napoli on set-pieces and crosses, or will it be Walcott running rampant behind that high line and left flank?
The case for Giroud
Napoli’s frailty on set-pieces and aerial duels has seen them concede goals frequently, such as when they twice conceded goals from corners to draw at home to Udinese—who are a shadow of the team we faced in 2011. Between Reina and the backline, none emerges as particularly strong in the air. If we can get the ball into the box, whether from corners, spot-kicks, or crosses, Giroud should find plenty of chances for headers or his trade-mark near-post tips. After all, the second goal against Napoli came from Giroud, who timed a run to the center of the box to slot home a pass from Özil—not quite a cross, of course, as it came from just outside the six-yard box, but enough to suggest that Giroud will be able to find space and present a target for teammates to send balls into. He has a tidy height advantage over all of
Liverpool Napoli’s backline, including Reina, and his intelligent movement and strength in the air should result in more than a few goal-scoring opportunities.
The case for Walcott
Against Napoli, both of our goals came from the left flank as sharp interplay overwhelmed what seemed to be a disorganized or discombobulated defense. It doesn’t seem as if matters have improved much as Napoli have conceded eight goals in their last three matches as opponents have exploited their high line. Speaking of exploiting high lines, I hope we’ll see Walcott start; if not, I hope he comes on soon after halftime. Teams have been finding plenty of space behind them for quick counters. The space they’re condeding between the defense and keeper should have Walcott chomping at the bit, and just as we exploited the left side of Napoli’s defense the first time around, we should find similar opportunities. It’s not as if Napoli adjust this tactic against superior opposition known for launching counter-attacks; witness their 3-1 loss to Dortmund. If Walcott makes an appearance, it’s not just through counters that he’ll find opportunities. His ability to get behind defenders and to run into space should be enough to give him chances to put shots on goal or lay off to teammates as the defense gets stretched out of space.
Splitting the difference
Between the two of them, assuming both get to play, I hope I know what I’m talking about and each man will have his chances and makes the most of them. Napoli is sure to press hard for the entire match, knowing that they need three goals to leap-frog us, and this will present a lot of opportunities for us on the counter. This might favor Walcott, but it could also generate fouls and corners as Napoli attempt to regroup. It should make for some gripping action, that’s for sure.
Amid all of the talk of not losing by three goals, we’ve lost sight of the idea that we’re still on a fine run of form that has seen us concede just two goals in our last eight matches while facing some high-octane offenses, and we haven’t conceded more than two goals since opening day. Aside from the trip to Old Trafford, we’ve scored in every match in which we’ve fielded a full-strength squad. I don’t see us breaking either of those trends today.
So who’s it going to be—Walcott, Giroud, both, or neither? Your thoughts below the fold…