Monday 17 June 2019

Alisson and Salah's heroics make Reds a qualified success

Liverpool 1-0 Napoli

Liverpool's Mohamed Salah scores past Napoli's David Ospina at Anfield last night. Photo: PA
Liverpool's Mohamed Salah scores past Napoli's David Ospina at Anfield last night. Photo: PA

Jason Burt

This was a special European night for Liverpool. A night when nerves were shredded, chances were missed and they made it through to the last-16 of the Champions League.

This was a special European night for Liverpool. A night when nerves were shredded, chances were missed and they made it through to the last-16 of the Champions League.

Liverpool goalkeeper Alisson makes a crucial late save from Napoli's Arkadiusz Milik. Photo: PAUL ELLIS/AFP/Getty Images
Liverpool goalkeeper Alisson makes a crucial late save from Napoli's Arkadiusz Milik. Photo: PAUL ELLIS/AFP/Getty Images

The four minutes of added time felt like an agonised eternity and for all of the brilliance of Mohamed Salah, with his goal, they were indebted to their goalkeeper Alisson.

Liverpool wasted a host of opportunities, not least through Sadio Mane, but it was Alisson who prevented Napoli from knocking them out with the one clear chance they created which came in those added minutes.

Somehow the Brazilian spread himself to divert Arkadiusz Milik's shot when the substitute seemed certain to score. At the final whistle the Liverpool players slumped to the turf, spent and in relief. They were through by the narrowest of margins, the margin they needed.

"Mo Salah scored an unbelievable goal and I have no idea how Alisson made a save like this, it was amazing," said manager Jurgen Klopp. "It was wild and there were lots of counter attacks but we were ready for that. That is Anfield live and in colour.

Liverpool players applaud fans after the match. Photo: Peter Byrne/PA Wire
Liverpool players applaud fans after the match. Photo: Peter Byrne/PA Wire

"Uefa probably thought they could continue the competition without Liverpool, but not yet. I said if we went out, it wouldn't have been tonight, it would have been in Napoli when we deserved to lose, but tonight we deserved to win."

His side are top of the Premier League and although going out of the Champions League would not have been a disaster it may well have stalled momentum. Instead they have accelerated that as they finished runners-up to Paris Saint-Germain.

It felt like it would take something special on a special night to force the breakthrough and so it came from a familiar source. "Mo Salah, Mo Salah, running down the wing," reverberated around Anfield as the Egyptian delivered such a precious goal; such a clever goal.

Smartly

James Milner rolled the ball into him in the penalty area and Salah smartly 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. Salah knew he expected that too so superbly took it with his right, feinting to cross, also deceiving goalkeeper David Ospina, to squeeze the ball into the net.

It was predatory. It was perfect. And Liverpool had the advantage they needed. The scoreline that would suffice. Defeats in Naples, Belgrade and Paris had put last season's finalists on the brink and made this last group game effectively a knockout match with the added kicker that both sides could go through depending on PSG's result away to Red Star.

It was complicated, made complicated by quite how tough Group C was and also, admittedly, Liverpool's own sloppiness away from home. But it was in their hands and they were at Anfield and "Allez, allez, allez" was sung from the first whistle with that raw emphasis that it was all or nothing by evening's end. There was anxiety also and a wily opponent to overcome but Liverpool were ahead.

It had felt like the Liverpool goal was coming. Marek Hamsik had gone close for the Italians, steering a cutback narrowly over, but there had been chances and gathering momentum at the other end.

Andrew Robertson's cross on the run reached Salah but instead of taking a first-time shot the striker took a touch, too heavy, and the ball ran through to Ospina before, soon after, Milner headed over. Klopp turned to the crowd, demanding more.

Instead angry boos soon rang out as Dries Mertens was left in pain after he was caught by Virgil van Dijk in a sliding tackle - with the Liverpool defender rightly booked and, therefore, suspended for the next European match.

The hosts had reverted to the tried and tested with only Alisson, from their summer signings, in the team and the attacking triumvirate taking the roles they fulfilled so brilliantly last season. It was working.

The tempo remained high, as it had to, and Koulibaly was cautioned as he struggled to contain Salah. As they emerged for the second-half Liverpool will also have known that PSG were comfortably ahead. Napoli would have known that also. It appeared one of these two sides was going out.

If it stayed like this, Liverpool were through. But they had to push on in search of more goals as it was too precariously poised against such dangerous opponents even if preserving a clean sheet was more important.

That was the conundrum. Plus the occasion demanded they continue to attack and, maybe, Salah should have done better after Jordan Henderson snapped into a tackle to regain possession. Salah held off Rui but then dragged his low shot into the side-netting.

It was a chance with another falling, this time to Roberto Firmino, as Trent Alexander-Arnold clipped a cross into his path only but the striker was unable to get enough power on his header. Ospina saved. He also held on to a Henderson half-volley while a Van Dijk shot from 30 yards sailed wide and Milner's cross-shot also cleared the same post. Again the anxiety levels grew.Liverpool broke. Suddenly Salah was clear on goal but Ospina did well to force his wide, with a fingertip touch and then recover to palm away his cross before it reached Firmino who had set up the chance. Then only Raul Albiol prevented Mane running clear before Ospina scrambled across to deny Mane who had side-footed goalwards. A free-kick was won with the ball chipped to Van Dijk - who volleyed over.

It that was a let-off for Napoli then there was one for Liverpool as Jose Callejon met a low cross beyond the far post only to shoot high over. He held his face in disbelief. As did Mane as he side-footed wide from Salah's cutback. It was a shocking miss. As was another at the end when he was through on goal. But Liverpool held on.

Telegraph.co.uk

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