Liverpool fail to earn a rare night off despite Lovren's equaliser
Liverpool 1 Napoli 1
Liverpool's bid for at least one midweek off in December was scuppered by Napoli as the Italians gained a measure of revenge for their Anfield exit a year ago.
The spirit of Jurgen Klopp's side was in evidence again as Dejan Lovren's equaliser secured a 1-1 draw. Dries Mertens had earlier threatened to ensure Carlo Ancelotti became the first visiting coach to win at Anfield in Europe since Klopp's appointment.
Please log in or register with Independent.ie for free access to this article.
But the draw is not enough to erase Salzburg's chances of sending Liverpool into the Europa League next month. The Austrians will prepare for the biggest night in their history after giving Klopp's side a fright on Merseyside earlier in the competition.
There was much to admire about Ancelotti's side as they avoided the barrage expected following Lovren's 65th-minute header. It never materialised when it seemed another late winner would come for Klopp's side, especially as lively substitute Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain led the charge.
Liverpool sought the win not only to guarantee top spot, but also to give their coach the luxury of making wholesale changes for the final group game.
There is no prospect of that now. Napoli will meet the whipping boys of the group, Genk, while Liverpool must ensure they get the job done in Austria. It was a headache Klopp could do without, although he will keep perspective with his side still only needing a draw.
There was a three-minute spell when a rare, anxious hush fell upon Anfield. Virgil van Dijk was lying in agony in the centre circle, his team-mates urging medical staff to come to his attention. Only three minutes earlier Fabinho - probably Liverpool's player of the season so far - had departed after requiring similarly lengthy treatment on an ankle.
Around them, Mohamed Salah had been hunting without much joy for his goal compass; Andy Robertson kept giving the ball away when trying to send Sadio Mane down the left; and Joe Gomez, preferred to Trent Alexander-Arnold, was struggling to replicate the crossing ability of the man he replaced.
Of more pertinence, as van Dijk was treated, the Napoli players were celebrating a goal by Mertens, who had taken advantage of the space vacated by the centre-half to pounce on Giovanni Di Lorenzo's pass and beat Alisson Becker from a tight angle.
The Kop silently awaited two verdicts. The first, courtesy of VAR, was negative. The TV pictures declared a valid goal despite the initial appearance of a foul and then an offside. The second bulletin about Van Dijk was received more enthusiastically, as he dusted himself down and tried to lead the charge back into the game.
To lose one influential player ahead of the most hectic schedule of the campaign would have been considered an accident, two downright careless.
It was a reminder of the jeopardy in this fixture for Liverpool. Group E had a comfortable look prior to kick-off, but Klopp did not want to head to Salzburg with work still needed to qualify. Only a victory against the Italians could avoid that. A scrappy, interrupted first half in which the hosts found their tempo in the closing stages did not bode well.
Napoli were as well organised as any to come to Merseyside this season.
Even without Lorenzo Insigne they carried a threat to extend the discomfort of Klopp's back four.
A year ago, this fixture was the catalyst for Liverpool's European conquest, Alisson's last-minute save redirecting the course of history. It was worth around pounds £60million, given what followed in the knockout stages.
Napoli played as if they were invigorated rather than scarred by the experience. The surest sign of mounting concern was when Klopp was shown a yellow card after one protest too many at referee Carlos Del Cerro Grande.
When Roberto Firmino pounced on goalkeeper Alex Meret's 55th-minute fumble and directed a volley goalbound, Kalidou Koulibaly was in place to clear.
The only surprise is a Premier League club bereft of a world class centre-half has not already made an offer that Napoli cannot refuse.
Gomez's unhappy return was cut short before the hour when Klopp sent on Oxlade-Chamberlain and asked Jordan Henderson to fill in at right-back.
Oxlade-Chamberlain was immediately into action as the game opened up, crossing for Firmino to head wide. Liverpool were now exposed defensively, but it made a thrilling finish inevitable.
Lovren's header from Henderson's corner levelled on 65 minutes.
With news filtering through of Salzburg's dominance in Genk, this felt more like a knockout fixture and Klopp went for the winner when sending on Alexander-Arnold with 12 minutes left.
Liverpool have made a habit of finding late winners in the Premier League. It was not to be this time. There was generous applause for both teams at full-time, but it was Ancelotti's night.
© Daily Telegraph, London
Who is your sportstar of the year?
Vote in the Irish Independent Sport Star Awards and you could win the ultimate sports prize.
Prizes include, tickets to Ireland's against Scotland in the Six Nations, All Ireland football and hurling final tickets and much more.