Sunday 15 December 2019

Alisson the one who got away for Napoli

Liverpool goalkeeper Alisson Becker saves from Arkadiusz Milik in the dying stages of last season’s
Champions League clash against Napoli which secured the victory that his team needed to progress to the knock-out stages. Photo: Alex Livesey - Danehouse/Getty Images
Liverpool goalkeeper Alisson Becker saves from Arkadiusz Milik in the dying stages of last season’s Champions League clash against Napoli which secured the victory that his team needed to progress to the knock-out stages. Photo: Alex Livesey - Danehouse/Getty Images

Melissa Reddy

"It's no problem. I won't get tired of it," Alisson smiles as he settles into his seat in an Anfield suite, ready to talk about that save, the one he's been told will still demand soundbites from him post-retirement.

But before discussing last December's "miracolo," showcased in all its majesty through photo sequence in 'Corriere dello Sport', the goalkeeper recounts 11 important others against the same "very special opponent" Napoli.

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Carlo Ancelotti's side renew Champions League hostilities with Liverpool tonight, 50 weeks after Alisson thwarted Arkadiusz Milik in the 92nd minute to deny them passage into the knockout stages as the Merseysiders motioned on towards a sixth European Cup.

Nine months prior to that, however, the Brazil international had already proved problematic for Napoli in the colours of Roma at Stadio San Paolo.

History

"They are part of the story of my career," he says. "In March 2018, Roma had the away game in Naples and it was an awesome one for me with 11 saves. And then, here at Anfield, I think I put my name in the history of Liverpool with the save against them in a decisive match, an all-or-nothing moment, with our Champions League lives on the line. I put everything I had into that save and we put everything we had into that game."

If Napoli owner and film producer, Aurelio De Laurentiis, was in total control of the script, the defining moment of Alisson's club career would never have been screened.

He had crafted a compelling sales pitch for the 'keeper in the summer of 2018, only to watch Liverpool recruit him from Roma in a £65 million steal.

"Napoli tried to bid for me," Alisson admits. "The president came to me, but if I went to Naples from Roma, I was going to put myself in a tough situation in Italy."

De Laurentiis was livid at not securing Alisson and went limp when the one that got away then took away Napoli's seat at Europe's top table last season.

So back to that save. The "lifesaver" as Jürgen Klopp put it.

Liverpool were 1-0 up at Anfield, in touching distance of the non-negotiable win they required to progress in the competition, when Jose Callejon's left-footed cross evaded their defence and arrived at the feet of Milik in the six-yard box with only the goalkeeper to beat.

Ninety-two minutes. The pressure. What on earth is Alisson thinking? "If we concede now, there is no time to do a comeback, which we are specialists at," he says. "This is it. Everything depends on this. I trained for that kind of moment all my life.

"I was ready. I got into the right position and then I was waiting for my defenders to clear the ball, but it was a difficult cross to keep out and then I saw the ball fall to Milik.

"I tried to close to try the angle as much as I could, make myself big and I forced him to stop and shoot quickly. I think if you ask forwards, they'll say this is the hardest thing to deal with in that situation.

"Then the ball came straight to me, but that's because I attacked it, I bought time, I made the situation complicated for him. If I had stayed in position, he would have had space and time to look and choose his spot."

Alisson made such a multi-faceted process, produced in pivotal milliseconds under stress, look quite simple.

"The people who said it's an easy save, I think it's a little bit of jealousy inside of that comment," says Alisson, who was drilled to do the basics right and be smart not showy in his formative playing years at Internacional's academy.

"What you work on and train towards always comes out in a game. You need to be focused, in the right place and make the right decision in a second. Sometimes you have to attack the ball, sometimes you cannot wait for the strikers. If you wait to react, it can be too late. I made a difficult situation look easy by doing the simple things, but they are the important things."

Alisson, who was nicknamed the "Iceman" at Internacional for his calm, composed demeanour and ability to shrug off mistakes instantaneously, does struggle in one department.

"To come to the stadium and not be involved - I can't deal with that," he reveals. "It is close to impossible for me."

Alisson had to do that just once while recovering from a calf injury - the most serious setback of his career thus far - sustained on the opening day of the Premier League season.

"I just came to Anfield for the Champions League game against Red Bull Salzburg," he rapidly shakes his head and balloons his cheeks as he recalls the experience of watching the dramatic 4-3 win over the Austrian side as a spectator.

"I couldn't stand on my calf for long and didn't to rest it properly so most times I would watch at home, but I was here for that game. I was going through all the emotions - nervous, happy, frustrated, anxious - that the supporters feel. I think sometimes they want to get on the pitch and kick the ball and make the save and I was like that - wanting to jump from the stand onto the field.

"I love football. I really love what I do. Going to watch without being able to play is like if you love chocolate and you want it and you have a nice box of Godiva in front of you, but you can't touch it. It's not an easy thing, but you have to deal with it."

There was another upside too during his recovery. "I could spend time with my family, which is something that was sacrificed after the Champions League win and joining Brazil straight away."

Triumphant

Alisson's wife, Natalia Loewe gave birth to their son, Matteo, a day before Brazil began their triumphant Copa America campaign. Having attended every Liverpool Champions League away game last season, she could not be in Madrid for the final.

One of the enduring scenes of that night was seeing her join the post-match celebrations on the pitch via FaceTime with their young daughter, Helena. Liverpool's players and staff were pleased that UEFA's emotive near 13-minute short film of the showpiece concluded with Alisson sprawled on the Estadio Metropolitano pitch, showing off his medal to his family on the phone while mayhem ensued around him.

"It will live with me," Alisson says. "Every small thing, all the details around the game."

As he overlooks Anfield, there is another memory he will never forget.

"Barcelona. Here. Wow. The power of this place. How we believed and brought our brave plan to life."

Alisson has experienced the stadium as a opponent in a 5-2 defeat with Roma in 2018 - "it was scary. You play against a really good team and then the fans lift them even higher. I much prefer to be on Liverpool's side here".

He had, however, been on Liverpool's radar for several seasons. In 2013, Liverpool's goalkeeping coach John Achterberg began assessing Alisson - then 20 and at Internacional - before speaking to his camp a year later to register interest in the Novo Hamburgo native. Work permit issues complicated matters, but the club continued building their dossier on a player they felt would be transformative.

"Someone told me in 2013 that there was from a coach from Liverpool looking at me, but I didn't really believe him," Alisson says. "Now it's hard to take in all that has happened and to know there is still so much still to come here." (© Independent News Service)

Liverpool v Napoli, Virgin Media Sport/BT Sport 2, 8.0

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