European Cup holders Liverpool made hard work of their pool last autumn and UEFA Champions League Group E pairs them with Napoli – the side they edged on goals scored to progress – again.
Red Bull Salzburg of Austria and Belgian club Genk also go in this group which feels easier overall.
Liverpool weren’t top seeds 12 months ago but took their place among the elite thanks to that 2-0 final win over Tottenham in Madrid.
The minnows of the pool should hold no fears for Jurgen Klopp’s crew. Anfield is a fortress where many a famous European night has rocked the Kop.
Former Chelsea boss Carlo Ancelotti is keeping Napoli as consistent challengers to Juventus in Serie A, however, and they again are the main danger.
The trip to Naples is up first for Liverpool and it’s a big plus getting the most difficult away day dealt with early. Is Champions League Group E as straightforward as it seems and the betting suggests?
That’s what the latest in a series of articles from OpenOdds experts on Europe’s elite club competition is all about.
We assess changes to squads and other interesting subplots that emerge pool by pool. This one is of particular interest as it includes the holders.
Liverpool stick with virtually the same squad
A couple of backup goalies apart, Klopp hasn’t felt the need to make any first-team signings since Liverpool lifted the Champions League.
Once Brazil stopper Alisson Becker is back from injury, it’s the same Reds side that landed a sixth European Cup playing in this pool.
There have been some fringe departures from Anfield, however. Ex-England striker Daniel Sturridge struggled for fitness throughout his time at Liverpool and was released at the end of his deal.
Danny Ings made a loan spell with Southampton permanent too. Belgium goalie Simon Mignolet has returned home, meanwhile, and can expect to be first-choice at Club Brugge.
Spanish left back Alberto Moreno, who Klopp never had much faith in, was another departure from Anfield to Villarreal.
In Roberto Firmino flanked by Sadio Mane and Mo Salah, the Reds clearly have one of the best attacks in Europe. They, alongside super sub Divock Origi, fired Liverpool to Champions League glory.
There’s two sporting cliches in conflict with one another surrounding the Reds since then, however.
On the one hand, if it ain’t broke then don’t fix it – but on the other, are they in danger of standing still? Not if Liverpool’s Premier League form is any indicator.
They have set the early pace in their bid to go one better and end the domestic dominance of Man City in English football this season. Klopp’s crew found enough to squeeze through their Champions League group last time.
They should do it with room to spare this autumn. Winning the pool depends on results against Napoli, but Liverpool have gone all the way without finishing top before.
Napoli ready to go again
Are Napoli in better shape than when dropping into the Europa League knockout phase last season?
That’s the key question as the Reds set a clear standard in Champions League Group E here.
Ancelotti has an even greater European pedigree than Klopp after winning this competition with AC Milan twice and Real Madrid in 2014.
This very savvy Italian coach saw long-serving Napoli player Marek Hamsik leave the Stadio San Paolo midway through the campaign.
That major departure shouldn’t be cast as derailing another title tilt. Napoli are perennial runners-up or top three finishers in Italy and have kept hold of their other key players.
Plenty of gossip column inches have been dedicated to Kalidou Koulibaly in recent years. Premier League clubs are said to covet the Senegal centre back yet he has remained in Naples.
The capture of Greece counterpart Kostas Manolas from Roma to play alongside Koulibaly strengthens their defence if anything.
Ancelotti also has Colombia keeper David Ospina for keeps from Arsenal. North Macedonian teenager Elif Elmas is an addition to Napoli’s midfield from Fenerbahce.
He’ll do well to break into an engine room where Allan, Fabian Ruiz and Poland playmaker Piotr Zielinski have gelled in various combinations.
— Official SSC Napoli (@en_sscnapoli) August 27, 2019
Mexico winger Hirving Lozano – Chucky to his fans – is the biggest splash made in Naples this summer.
When you consider how successful Dries Mertens – the last PSV Eindhoven attacker they purchased – has been at the San Paolo, he looks a potentially shrewd signing.
Fernando Llorente did well in Italy as a backup striker with Juventus, so his free transfer from Spurs is also astute.
Napoli arguably have a deeper squad than last season. Their games with Liverpool really will shape the destiny of Champions League Group E.
Gulf too wide for Salzburg and Genk to bridge
There are two class teams in this pool. With the greatest of respect to Salzburg and Genk, two others playing for third place. As Austrian Bundesliga champions, the former are something of a big fish in a small pond.
The days of Salzburg ruffling a few feathers in Europe despite the continued backing of their powerful sponsors are over.
They cashed in or released three of their four top goalscorers from last season and it’s hard to make a case for them with so many attacking players gone.
Selling clubs are up against it in the Champions League, especially in a pool like this. Salzburg are happy to make profits off those who do well in the Austrian Bundesliga.
It leaves them as an unknown quantity often with raw, young replacements. There are no household names in the ranks of Belgian champions Genk either.
Unlike Salzburg, they can still upon last season’s leading marksman in Mbwana Samatta of Tanzania.
One of his main sources of supply, Leandro Trossard, has left Genk, however, for Premier League club Brighton.
That’s a blow but again to be expected from a football league where the best move on. Champions League Group E is a curious one this year.
Liverpool could be pushed close by Napoli, but both have room to spare if replicating their form from last season.
There’s a big gulf in class between them and Genk and Salzburg – one that not even home games look enough to bridge. In the battle for third, it could pay to side with the latter.