Salah and Alisson play the key parts as Liverpool walk on in Europe
Nervous night at Anfield ends with Jürgen Klopp’s side in last 16 of Champions League
Liverpool’s Mohamed Salah scores his side’s first goal of the game during the Champions League match against Napoli at Anfield. Photograph: Peter Byrne/PA Wire
Liverpool 1 Napoli 0
Perhaps it would be stretching the truth a little to say this victory for Liverpool be remembered among on the list of great European nights here. That, however, is only because the list is already so extensive and the jubilation at the final whistle told its own story. Liverpool had made it through and can be greatly encouraged by the way they handled a potentially treacherous night.
Jürgen Klopp’s team have lost all their three foreign excursions in Group C but they have made it through as runners-up courtesy of Mohamed Salah’s first-half winner on a night when Paris Saint-Germain’s victory against Red Star Belgrade meant the French champions also qualified.
Amid nerve-shredding drama, it needed a brilliant save from Alisson, the Liverpool goalkeeper, to keep out the substitute Arkadiusz Milik in stoppage time but that was a rare opportunity for Napoli and, on the balance of play, it would have been hugely unjust if the home side were denied so late.
For Liverpool, the risk factor was high. That made it a night fraught with danger and the bulletins from Belgrade, with PSG leading after 11 minutes, merely added to the drama.
Yet there is a decent theory that is how Anfield likes it best: under the floodlights, with the volume turned up and a kaleidoscope of banners on the Kop reminding everybody about the club’s pedigree in Europe. Liverpool’s supporters knew from the outset their team could win and still be eliminated. It made for a compelling evening and, for both sides, an examination of their temperament as much as their skill.
On that front, Liverpool’s route to last season’s final provided the hard evidence they could hold their nerve and, more than anything, their outstanding player from that run to Kiev has clearly shaken off whatever was holding him back earlier in the season. Salah passed up the game’s first clear chance with a poor piece of control inside the penalty area but, whereas that might have jarred his confidence a couple of months ago, this time he set out to put it right.
In the 34th minute, the ball came his way through the inside-right channel. In one shift of his body, he had held off Mário Rui, the Napoli left back, and suddenly he was picking up pace. Entering the area, Salah eluded the hitherto impressive Kalidou Koulibaly and as he continued his run, diagonally, it was his sideways look that fooled David Ospina into thinking a cross was coming, rather than a shot. The deception was brilliant and Salah’s shot went through Ospina’s legs as the former Arsenal goalkeeper moved off his line. It was the eighth time this season Salah had opened the scoring for his team.
It was not long before the television cameras picked out one of the Italian supporters in tears but, at that stage, there were still two-thirds of the game to play and Napoli, currently second in Serie A, had already shown they knew the value of finding a goal for themselves. Marek Hamsik’s shot was an early warning and once they were behind Carlo Ancelotti’s team might have been expected to commit more players into attack, knowing that it was now imperative they could score.
An equaliser, after all, would have put Napoli through and meant the home side needing to score twice more to save themselves. With that in mind, it was a surprise the team in blue did not react more urgently to the prospect of being put out of the competition. At times Liverpool’s defenders were free to pass the ball between themselves without any sustained pressure from their opponents. With so much at stake, Napoli seemed surprisingly passive at times, careless with the ball and struggling to create any real momentum.
The question for Liverpool was whether they could shut out their opponents for the remainder of the match and 14 clean sheets from their previous 18 home games suggested they could. Equally, we should know enough about Klopp’s ethos by now to realise there was no way his team would stop pressing forward. Andy Robertson’s attacking forays from left back was a prominent feature of Liverpool’s performance and early in the second half there was another chance for Salah to take aim at the visitors’ goal. Roberto Firmino’s pass had put him through but Salah dragged his shot marginally wide.
Salah had another opportunity in the 74th minute but this time Ospina forced him wide and then clawed away an attempt to curl the ball into the top corner. Sadio Mané, who denied by an offside flag when he was put the ball in the net in the first half, then squandered two golden chances, whereas the only real opportunity for Napoli before stoppage time was a far-post chance for José Callejón after a rare lapse from Robertson.
The downside for Liverpool was a first-half booking for Virgil van Dijk after winning the ball in a challenge on Dries Mertens but following through his studs to connect with the Belgian. Van Dijk’s yellow card means he will be suspended from the opening leg of their last-16 tie, with the draw to come on Monday. That apart, Liverpool can reflect on a hugely satisfying night. – Guardian