Tuesday night’s Champions League match at Anfield was barely more than a formality. Both Napoli and Liverpool had already secured their places in the knockout stages, finishing comfortably above Ajax and Rangers in the Group A table, and Napoli’s 4-1 win over Liverpool in Naples in September meant that Liverpool would have to win by four clear goals to beat the Italian side to the top spot—a steep task given the hosts’ recent Premier League struggles and the away side’s red-hot form. Napoli were denied an opener when Leo Skiri Østigård’s strike was narrowly ruled offside by VAR, and Liverpool eventually clinched a 2-0 victory with late goals from Mohamed Salah and Darwin Núñez. As expected, Liverpool couldn’t turn the head-to-head tiebreaker in their favor, finishing second in Group A behind one of the most exciting sides in Europe.
The match against Liverpool marked Napoli’s first loss in all competitions this season, ending an unbeaten streak stretching back to April, and based on their current domestic form, the slip-up at Anfield seems destined to remain just that. At the time of writing, Napoli sit five points clear at the top of the Serie A table, with ten wins, two draws, zero losses, and a scintillating 30 goals scored—the most in the Italian top flight. Their form in the Champions League before their trip to Anfield was just as mesmerising; the home win against Liverpool was followed by four more comfortable victories, including a 6-1 demolition of Ajax away in Amsterdam. Pundits and fans alike have praised manager Luciano Spalletti’s fluid attacking football, perfectly suited to a squad bursting with individual talent and group chemistry.
Few expected Napoli to start the season so well after a massive summer reshuffle that saw several of the club’s key players depart. Naples-born captain Lorenzo Insigne joined MLS side Toronto FC after the expiration of his contract, while all-time leading scorer Dries Mertens headed to Galatasaray in Istanbul after nine seasons with the Partenopei. Vice-captain Kalidou Koulibaly, hailed as one of the best center-backs in Europe, signed for Chelsea after years of being linked with a move away. The additional departures of goalkeeper David Ospina and midfield talent Fabián Ruiz left fans with little optimism for the start of the season. Most expected Napoli to go through a rocky adjustment period to integrate their new signings, but it’s been the opposite. Kim Min-jae, brought in from Fenerbahçe to replace Koulibaly, has played like a veteran during his first season in Italy, forming a solid partnership with Amir Rrahmani at the back. Giacomo Raspadori and Giovanni Simeone have thrived in the attacking third, scoring four goals each in the Champions League and seamlessly filling in for injured striker Victor Osimhen. Last season’s regular starters have also continued to impress, with full-backs Giovanni di Lorenzo and Mário Rui showing their quality in both attacking and defending and the midfield trio of Piotr Zieliński, Stanislav Lobotka, and André-Frank Zambo Anguissa being praised as some of the best in Italy. Osimhen, who Napoli paid a club record transfer fee for in 2020, has scored in every Serie A match he’s played in since his return from injury and is currently tied for the most goals scored in the top division.
The most exciting face in the starting lineup, though, has been 21-year-old winger Khvicha Kvaratskhelia, signed from Dinamo Batumi over the summer for only £9 million. The Georgian has set Serie A alight, racking up six goals and five assists in twelve matches, plus two goals in the Champions League. An unpredictable figure in the final third, Kvaratskhelia has been a menace to opposing defenders, ghosting past them as he did on Saturday, when he assisted two of Osimhen’s three goals and scored one himself in a 4-0 triumph over Sassuolo. Napoli fans have already christened their new star “Kvaradona”, a nickname not to be taken lightly in a city that still worships the legendary Diego Maradona like a god. While some believe the nickname is premature, there is no doubt that Kvaratskhelia’s ceiling is high, and the Napoli faithful will be hoping he remains in the city for many years to come.
So far, Napoli have conquered nearly every hurdle placed in front of them. They beat defending champions AC Milan away from home in September and picked up all three points at the Olimpico against both Lazio and Roma. When Osimhen picked up an injury that kept him off the pitch for a month, the rest of the squad didn’t miss a beat. Victories in their last stretch of matches before the World Cup—a tricky away game against second-place Atalanta and then back-to-back home matches against Empoli and Udinese—would put Napoli in prime position for a title charge as they chase their first Scudetto since Maradona himself played for the club. Going into the World Cup at the top of the table holds no guarantee for the elusive league title—the notoriously superstitious Napoli fans are no stranger to late-season heartbreak—but if they can keep up their dazzling form, the loss to Liverpool will be nothing more than a distant memory.