Ancelotti, Napoli the toast of Serie A as Italy rules Champions League
On the eve of Liverpool's game in Naples, Jurgen Klopp called Carlo Ancelotti a "smart fox." Wily and venerable, perhaps he had the kitsune from Japanese folklore in mind, the ones who shape-shift and morph into human form, taking the guise of elderly men blessed with superior intelligence and magical powers.
As kickoff approached Wednesday night and the sound system at the San Paolo banged out "Lessons in Love" by Level 42 then "The Final Countdown" by Europe, attention was drawn to Klopp, who stood just inside his own half watching the Napoli warm-up. He couldn't take his eyes off them. It was as if he were saying to himself: "What are they up to?" Perhaps he'd already intuited that Ancelotti, with his been-around-the-block cunning, was preparing something for which Klopp hadn't prepared.
Nowhere to be seen as the players went through their final drills, and conforming therefore to the impression held in Klopp's homeland of Ancelotti as a hands-off manager -- a belittling idea put out to discredit him in the weeks leading up to his dismissal from Bayern Munich -- the epitome of their coaching school was about to receive a lesson. Ancelotti put on a masterclass "worthy of his fame," Napoli owner Aurelio de Laurentiis posted on Twitter; a reputation established on the back of three Champions League triumphs... five if you include his distinguished playing career.
It felt to some like Ancelotti exacted his revenge, not against Klopp, who spoke of him in glowing terms and couldn't have more respect for the man, but on all those who doubted him this time last year when he was treated so shabbily by Bayern. At the time, it became en vogue to say he was outdated, that he'd lost his touch and with it, some of his aura. The game was leaving him behind.
Wednesday's 1-0 victory illustrated that Ancelotti has still got it and underlined what a coup de Laurentiis pulled off in convincing him to return to Italy after almost a decade of winning everything, everywhere else.
Tactically, his game plan was a masterpiece. Ancelotti picked a trio of centre-backs and played with the hybrid "three-and-a-half" defence made popular in Italy by Paulo Sousa during his time with Fiorentina. In possession,Napoli played a sort of 3-4-2-1. Without it, they defended in 4-4-2, limiting Liverpool to zero shots on target and nothing at all inside the box. The positioning of Nikola Maksimovic and Mario Rui sent Liverpool's famous pressing game out of sync, as the Partenopei evaded the rush and moved the ball up the pitch with unexpected ease, creating a consistent flurry of chances that led Klopp to name Alisson the visiting side's Man of the Match. The timing of Liverpool's attempts to win back possession was all off, and the energy spent chasing shadows ultimately took a toll.
The intensity and physicality of Napoli's game also caught the eye. Ancelotti picked a team of giants, with Kalidou Koulibaly (6-foot-5), Maksimovic (6-foot-4), Raul Albiol (6-foot-3), Fabian Ruiz (6-foot-2) and Arkadiusz Milik (6-foot-1) giving Napoli a profile you seldom associated with Maurizio Sarri's side. But no one could match Allan for that bruising concoction of agility and aggression he exemplified Wednesday night. The 27-year-old was everywhere, never allowing Liverpool's midfield players the time to pick their heads up and play forward to Mohamed Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane.
Currently running Lorenzo Insigne close for Napoli's Player of the Season, the awareness that Allan is yet to be capped at senior level by Brazil continues to dumbfound.
Bold in his changes, Ancelotti went for the kill with 20 minutes to go, sending on his sicarios Dries Mertens, Simone Verdi then Piotr Zielinski to finish Liverpool off. The Belgian hit the bar from point-blank range with 10 minutes to spare, and with it, the crowd at the San Paolo perhaps started to fear their team might not get the win they so thoroughly deserved. But Insigne slid in in stoppage time and Ancelotti would not have had it any other way.
"We scored at the right time," he told Sky Italia, "because if Dries had scored in the 81st minute instead of hitting the bar we would have suffered more. Better to score in the 90th minute. You suffer less that way."
That it was Insigne dashing to celebrate under the curva offered a reminder of Ancelotti's nous. The switch in his position from out wide to a new central role just off Milik has produced a boom in goals from the Neapolitan, who finds himself in the midst of his best start ever to a season. Liberated from the fatigue of tracking back on the wing, he is fresher and more devastating in the final third.
Three months removed from Sarrismo, the transition from that philosophy to a more pragmatic approach under Ancelotti is no less fascinating than what Sarri is getting up to at Chelsea, where an existing group of players, defined by one particular style, have taken to another one in double-quick fashion. Ancelotti has retained some of the concepts Sarri ingrained in this Napoli team, but the system is different, and changeable depending on the opponent; prolonged periods of possession alternate with more direct, counterattacking football, and the manager trusts his squad as a whole rather than just 11 or 12 players. Already, 20 different players have started for Napoli this season.
Maksimovic, a €20 million signing from Torino in 2016, looked like money thrown down the drain under Sarri. He spent the second half of last season on loan at Spartak Moscow and was considered a lost cause. But Ancelotti's inclusive approach has fostered a great atmosphere in the camp. Napoli have the feel of a big happy family, exemplified in Ancelotti playing cards with the owner and night after night of karaoke in preseason. Everyone now feels involved and that they're contributing toward what Napoli are seeking to achieve this time around.
Sceptics will point out that they are already six points off the top in Serie A, Juventus (they play Oct. 6 at Udinese, 12 p.m. ET, ESPN+) beat them 3-1 at the weekend, and they could only draw against a Red Star side that were whooped 6-1 by Paris Saint-Germain at the Parc des Princes in matchday two. But Napoli have a new manager, they lost Jorginho, were dealt the hardest start to a season imaginable in Serie A and then found themselves in one of the groups of death in the Champions League, which they currently lead. The hope is Napoli can go on the kind of run Roma enjoyed in this competition last season.
Overall, it was a magnificent week for the Italians in Europe, with all four teams winning for the first time in 13 years and Serie A overtaking the Premier League in the UEFA coefficient. While Juventus and Roma were expected to clean up against Young Boys and Viktoria Plzen, respectively, Inter were lucky and simultaneously deserving of their win against PSV, which has them on maximum points and doing better than expected in the ring of fire that is Group B.
The toast of it all, though, remains Ancelotti. Insulted by Juventus fans at the Allianz Stadium at the weekend, he retorted: "I'll console myself by looking at the 2003 Champions League in my trophy cabinet." He is a legend of this competition, the shrewdest of operators. Living proof of the existence of the kitsune. Ancelotti, the Fantastic Mr Fox.