Mo Salah provides magic touch as Liverpool reach Champions League knockouts in tense win over Napoli
Jason Burt, Chief Football Correspondent, match report in Napoli.
This was another special European night for Liverpool. An Anfield night when Mohamed Salah scored another wonderful goal, nerves were shredded, chances were missed, the blood was pumping and they made it through to the last 16 of the Champions League.
They had to win and they did it by the narrowest of acceptable margins and even if it should have been far more emphatic there was also a dramatic twist at the end as they were stunningly indebted to goalkeeper Alisson who made a brilliant save deep into four minutes of added time.
That came from Napoli’s one clear opportunity. If it had been taken by Arkadiusz Milik then the harsh reality is that Liverpool would have been out. Dumped out. Instead as the substitute brought down a cross, that skimmed off Fabinho’s head, and shot goalwards Alisson spread himself with the ball ricocheting off his knees and away. Anfield erupted.
Soon after, at the final whistle, it erupted again. In relief; in joy but only after Jurgen Klopp had patted his heart. It had been that close and so it was also with Group C as Liverpool hauled themselves level on points with Napoli but sent the Italians into the Europa League. Paris St-Germain finished top.
As anaemic as Liverpool had been in Naples, where they lost by the same scoreline, they were as full-blooded here. They harried, they pressed, they prevented the visitors from playing and forced them to cede a host of clear opportunities in the second half. It was another of those European nights and felt wildly raw at times.
Liverpool are most definitely on the march. Momentum is being gathered, they are at the summit of the Premier League and into the knockout stages of this competition which is so precious to them and their rich history.
Salah also has his swagger back with a 10th goal in European action for Liverpool at Anfield and while he, again, did not smile when he scored there were plenty of smiles around him.
That attacking triumvirate of Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane were restored to the positions they occupied last season and were resurgent – even if chances, by Mane in particular, were not taken. In fact the only summer signing in the starting line-up was Alisson. But what a difference he makes. The Brazilian is a world-class goalkeeper and that one save alone underlined his importance and will draw harsh comparisons with the man he replaced, Loris Karius. The German simply does not have the same aura.
“I have no idea how he makes a save like this,” Klopp said, beaming. “If I knew Alisson was this good I would have paid double for him.” The goalkeeper cost £65 million but certainly feels priceless.
The result also means that Liverpool have kept 15 clean sheets in their last 19 home games in all competitions and Alisson has played his part in that as has Virgil van Dijk, signed last January, who was at his commanding best even if he collected a booking which rules him out of the first-leg of the next tie.
Liverpool will sorely miss him but Joe Gomez will be back by then and, more importantly, there will be Champions League football at Anfield in the springtime. It adds further warmth to the feel-good factor and sense that this is a formidable, emerging team that no one will want to face. Especially Salah if he plays like this. His goal was clever, very clever.
“Mo Salah, Mo Salah, running down the wing,” reverberated around when the Egyptian delivered it after James Milner rolled the ball into him in the penalty area. Salah rolled left-back Mario Rui to create space. Kalidou Koulibaly, who had been so dominant in the opening half-hour, ran across to cover and clearly expected Salah to shift the ball to his left foot. But the forward knew he expected that too so superbly took it with his right, feinting to cross, also deceiving goalkeeper David Ospina, to squeeze the ball through his legs and into the net. It was predatory. It was perfect.
One-nil. It would be enough. But that is not Klopp’s way and not Anfield’s way. They demanded more and so Liverpool pushed on in search of the goals that would banish any doubt and they really should have collected them knowing that PSG were winning comfortably away to Red Star Belgrade. It meant one of these two sides was going out.
So Liverpool wanted to make sure. Jordan Henderson snapped into a tackle to regain possession with the ball running to Salah who held off Rui only to drag his low shot into the side-netting. Then Firmino headed straight at Ospina before the former Arsenal goalkeeper, at fault for Salah’s goal, began to impress. The Colombian did well to force Salah wide when he attempted to round him and then recovered to palm away the striker’s chip. Before that Salah was clipped by Raul Albiol, and could have had a penalty, but stayed on his feet.
Liverpool redoubled their efforts; straining every sinew with Mane denied when he surely should have scored. He met a cross but Ospina scrambled across to block his side-footed shot before Mane was picked out by Salah but, horribly, shot wide when under no pressure.
After Van Dijk volleyed over, when he also should have done better, Jose Callejon spurned a half-chance as he ballooned over beyond the far post. But that opening was as nothing compared to the chance presented to Milik, which Alisson saved before Mane was sent clear again – only to again yet miss.
In the end it, like the others, did not matter. Liverpool were through. Thanks to Salah and Alisson who may be the difference this season.
Liverpool vs Napoli, player ratings: Who shone and who got lost in the shadows under the Anfield floodlights?
Chris Bascombe was at Anfield.
The sweeper keeper can look too cool occasionally, but more often than not he is playmaking from his six-yard box. Incredible late save. Imperious. 9/10
His partnership with Salah was among the most effective in this city since John and Paul were introduced. Napoli’s left hand side was withered. 8/10
Virgil van Dijk
His rousing challenge on Dries Mertens should have set the tone. Instead he was booked. Captaincy duties may be shared, but Van Dijk is a leader. Commanding. 8/10
Surprisingly retained despite Dejan Lovren’s return to fitness. Has looked edgy in previous games, but tuned up and looked more elegant in possession. 8/10
The crowd love every overlap and interception. Could have claimed early assist with exquisite cross, unfortunately miscontrolled by Salah. Outstanding. 8/10
Given more freedom to roam forward than usual, he was a pest to the deep-playing Napoli midfielders. Another fine night in his best ever season. 8/10
There is a clamour for Fabinho to get a run, but Klopp loves his captain for a reason. Moved the ball through midfield swiftly and retained a protective presence. 7/10
Mr Evergreen drifted to the left to combine with Robertson. Could have scored with a 9thminute header. These nights have brought out the best of him since his Anfield move. 8/10
Thought he had opened the scoring on 22 minutes, ruled out for offside. When Napoli had to score, his pace on the counter-attack was crucial. Some shocking misses. 6/10
Lest there by any doubt, the Salah of last season is back. Koulibaly had the better of him… for 10 minutes. Then it was Mo time, his skill, strength and precision giving Liverpool their lead. 8/10
Has been searching for form, and the touch is not yet what it was a year ago. He was still a constant threat, his link-up binding midfield and attack. 6/10
Substitutes: Keita for Firmino (79); Fabinho for Milner (84) Lovren for Alexander-Arnold (90) – Keita replaced Firmino, whose touch was deserting him more as the game progressed.
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