Monday 14 October 2019

Wasteful Liverpool do just enough against Napoli to book Champions League knockout place

Liverpool 1 Napoli 0

Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp baning on Mohamed Salah for goals in the title race (Action Images via Reuters/Carl Recine)
Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp baning on Mohamed Salah for goals in the title race (Action Images via Reuters/Carl Recine)

Carl Markham

Liverpool should have coasted to victory in their make-or-break Champions League decider but in the end they progressed to the knockout stage with the minimum requirement of a 1-0 win against Napoli.

As has often been the case a moment of Mohamed Salah first-half magic broke the deadlock with a clever piece of penalty-area trickery.

Had Sadio Mane been even close to his sharpest, Jurgen Klopp's side would have been out of sight without having to worry about the repercussions of conceding - which would have required a clear two-goal victory.

But Liverpool's European exploits are rarely without drama and had goalkeeper Alisson Becker, a virtual spectator for 90 minutes, not kept out Arkadiusz Milik in added time they would have been staring into the Europa League abyss after Christmas.

It was the sixth time in eight occasions in the Champions League they had progressed to the knockout stage having had to get a result in their final group game.

Among their previous successes was the famous night at home to Olympiakos in 2004-05 when they were faced with the same scenario as against Napoli: win 1-0 or by two clear goals with the latter eventually being required thanks to Steven Gerrard's late intervention.

The 2018 version has Salah as their talisman and he scored his 35th goal in his last 38 Anfield appearances to go level with Ian Rush on 14 goals in this competition - in just 21 matches - with only Gerrard (30) now ahead of him.

Klopp was conservative in his team selection, going for a solid midfield three of Jordan Henderson, Georginio Wijnaldum and James Milner with an eye on still being in the game at half-time rather than blowing away their visitors early on as happened so many times in this competition last season.

And while their first-half play was not scintillating it succeeded in building pressure gradually, with Wijnaldum's crossfield ball miscontrolled by Salah into the arms of David Ospina and Milner heading over Trent Alexander-Arnold's cross.

Napoli had the chance to stun Anfield after seizing on Milner's misplaced pass but Marek Hamsik fired over from Dries Mertens' cut-back.

Mane's offside goal heightened Napoli tensions further and they finally cracked in the 34th minute after a piece of Salah genius.

The Egyptian turned Mario Rui on the edge of the area from Milner's pass, skipped past the previously excellent Kalidou Koulibaly and deceived Ospina with a shot from a narrow angle, the goalkeeper diving to his right anticipating a cross with the ball going through his legs.

Napoli, who had been more interested in killing the game, immediately began committing more men to attack but it was Liverpool who came out for the second half more positive with Henderson robbing Hamsik for Roberto Firmino to play in Salah, who fired into the side-netting.

The visitors appeared not to have learned their lesson from the first half as time and time again Rui was left one-on-one with Salah, who gave the full-back a torrid time.

Rui was spared the final 20 minutes as Napoli boss Carlo Ancelotti swapped him with Faouzi Ghoulam, who was asked to play higher and wider, leaving Salah space in behind to run at Koulibaly.

Ospina got an important touch as Salah tried to go round him when put through before saving from Mane at point-blank range, with Virgil Van Dijk volleying over as Liverpool continued to twist rather than stick.

Mane missed the target from eight yards with three minutes to go. Their luck was certainly not in as they lost Alexander-Arnold to injury meaning Dejan Lovren had to come on at right-back for the final four minutes of added time.

With time ticking down Alisson showed once again why he was worth the £65million Liverpool paid for him in the summer with a superb save.

Another Mane miss proved academic as last year's finalists march on.

PA Media

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