Liverpool 1 - 0 Napoli
Liverpool: Salah 34’
There was absolutely no reason he should have been, but Alisson Becker became the injury time hero the Reds needed as he bailed his wasteful frontline out with a spectacular point-blank save to deny Napoli in the dying seconds of the match and secure the Reds progress from Group C.
The task at hand was clear for Jürgen Klopp’s men before kickoff; win 1-0 or by two clear goals and advance, anything else, it’s Europa League and wet Thursday nights in Bulgaria the rest of the year. The manager decided to trust the midfield that brought his side to the final last season, as James Milner, Jordan Henderson and Georginio Wijnaldum lined up behind the familiar front line.
The match set off at a spectacular pace, with both sides showing attacking intent early. Mohamed Salah’s first touch let him down as a gorgeous first time Andrew Robertson cross found him all alone in the center of the box, and David Ospina could collect the loose ball with ease, before a swift attack in the other direction saw Marek Hamsik curl a 16-yard effort over Alisson’s bar a minute later. James Milner then dove at a Trent Alexander-Arnold cross, but the vice-captain’s header flew over the Napoli crossbar.
On 13 minutes, Virgil van Dijk was booked for a @fantastic challenge@ that well could have broken Dries Mertens’ ankle in half, and replays showed that the Dutchman perhaps was somewhat fortunate to stay on the pitch.
Halfway through the frame, Sadio Mane had the ball in the back of the net, but the Senegalese forward was rightly called offside, before a quick break ended with Roberto Firmino’s shot from the center-left blocked by a defender.
Kalidou Koulibaly is a tremendous defender, and had looked set to repeat his dominant display from the teams’ first meeting, but on 34 minutes, Mo Salah revealed the centre-back’s inner Jerome Boateng, first using his strength to nudge Mário Rui out of the way before embarrassing Koulibaly with some quick feet. Ospina was the final victim, as the Egyptian striker drew the goalkeeper off his line with a look across the box, before slotting the ball between the Spaniard’s legs. The Reds had their goal and looked likely to grab another.
Only three minutes later, Alisson nearly gifted Napoli an equaliser with a horrendous pass into midfield, but the resulting 4-on-2 attack ended with Fabian Ruiz dragging an effort well wide of the Brazilian’s far post.
The second half was a continuous mess of chances, crescendoing into injury time. Wijnaldum drove a volley high and wide three minutes into the frame, before a Henderson tackle and Firmino pass saw Salah through on goal, but the Egyptian hooked his shot wide of the post.
Raúl Albiol headed a corner straight at Alisson, and less than a minuter later, Firmino returned the favour at the other end with a powerful but poorly placed effort from 16 yards. Van Dijk drilled a 35-yard effort wide of Ospina’s far post, before Milner drove intot he box and curled a right-footer just wide of the same piece of aluminium.
Twenty minutes from time,the visitors began to throw men forward, correctly calculating that a goal would be twice as valuable to them as it would be for their hosts, and van Dijk was forced into action, blocking a José Callejón cross at the last moment. At the other end Mané slipped a pass into Salah’s path, but Ospina got a touch on the ball before the striker could finish, and Salah elected to stay on his feet when Albiol made contact with him as he chased the ball in the Napoli box. The subsequent cross to the back post was palmed away by Ospina.
The hosts were countering at will now, consistently arriving in four-on-four situations as Napoli left most of their players up the pitch, but were continually denied, first by a weak chipped pass from Firmino into Mané, then by Robertson’s cross ending up slightly behind the Senegalese forward, forcing an effort that flew straight at Ospina.
Van Dijk slashed a back post volley over the bar after a tricksy set piece, before Callejón’s sliding finish was skied by the Spaniard, following a sensational driven cross from Hamsik. Wijnaldum fluffed a brace of chances, first heading an Alexander-Arnold cross wide of the post, then sticking his left-footed effort straight into the block of Albiol.
Naby Keita and Fabinho were brought on to refresh a tiring midfield, and Sadio Mané missed a glorious chance, his finish from six yards rippling the wrong side of the net, despite a gorgeous run and cutback from Salah.
Dejan Lovren was brought on in what has continually been an ill-advised change to a back three, and the Croatian’s only contribution was to miss Arkadiusz Milik at the back post two minutes into injury time. The Polish striker did an excellent job bringing down the ball, and his shot from point-blank range looked destined to rip into the back of the net and through the hearts of every Liverpool fan watching, but Alisson was on hand to be the hero, pulling out an obscene save that single-handedly paid off 13 percent of his fee.
There was time for the Reds to miss another glorious opportunity, as Sadio Mané hooked a shot wide after being set through on goal by Salah once more, but it mattered not in the end, and group stage advancement in consecutive years was attained.
In the end — and despite Alisson’s save undoubtedly set to become the entirety of the game’s narrative — the scoreline flattered Napoli. Liverpool were never in complete control given the circumstances, but the Reds should have scored five without breaking a sweat, and lackluster finishing was the only thing giving their opposition hope after the hour mark.
No matter their away woes in the Champions League this year, the Reds are in the final sixteen, and as such, are in with a chance of another date with ol’ Big Ears. Group winners such as Barcelona, Borussia Dortmund and Porto are all potential opponents, but Jürgen Klopp’s men — in possession of a stellar defense and an explosive attack — will fear no side in next week’s draw.
A full five days rest await the squad now, before another prestige contest awaits, as archrivals Manchester United travel to Anfield on Sunday, looking to scupper the Reds’ title tilt.