Yet another thrilling European night at Anfield ended in the favour of the hosts with a solitary Mohamed Salah goal against Napoli enough to see Liverpool into the knockout stages of the Champions League.
The first sight at goal fell to Liverpool and to Mohamed Salah when Andrew Robertson picked him out at the finish of a blistering counter attack, but his first touch face-to-face with David Ospina got away from him and rolled through into the goalkeeper’s grateful grasp.
The ball was in the Napoli net in the 22nd minute when a nice move ended in Trent Alexander-Arnold’s ball across the six-yard box being tapped in by Sadio Mane, who was correctly deemed to be in an offside position.
Salah gave the Reds the lead that they craved, scoring brilliantly as he turned Mario Rui and beat Kalidou Koulibaly in the box before sliding a shot through David Ospina’s legs with his right foot.
Liverpool had a plethora of chances to kill the game off and give them the security of the two clear goal win situation, however they failed to take them and as their path into the knockout stages of the Champions League flashed before their eyes, Alisson pulled off a match winning save from Arkadiusz Milik in the second minute of stoppage time that ultimately spared his teams blushes.
The value of defending
Much has been said of Liverpool’s improved defence this season, and this game was as clear an indication as any of how far they have come in their back half.
When Joe Gomez went down with injury against Burnley during the week and tests confirmed an impending six week layoff for the young Englishman, Reds fans were naturally concerned with one of their best performer’s being sidelined in a crucial part of the season.
However, Joel Matip has taken this opportunity to stake his claim for a regular spot in the team, with three consecutive 90 minute appearances that have caught the eye, none more so than in this match where he was commanding, composed and showed everything that Liverpool fans hoped from him since his move from Schalke in the summer of 2016.
Mo Salah to the rescue.
— Optus Sport (@OptusSport) December 12, 2018
Robertson is fast becoming one of the top tier left-backs in world football; week in, week out he showcases his abilities in the biggest games and once again he was a key performer for the hosts down the left flank, both in defending and providing an extra element in attack.
The biggest kudos goes justifiably to Alisson, though. Bought for what was then a world record fee for a goalkeeper before Chelsea signed Kepa from Athletic Bilbao, Reds fans and neutrals alike scowled at the amount of money it took to prize him from the Italian capital.
Not even halfway into his first season as the Reds’ No.1 and he has already proven his price tag as he has been instrumental in much of the success that Liverpool have had on the pitch, and in many ways he single-handedly guided them to the round of 16 with his save in injury time.
Draws come back to bite Napoli
Coming into the final match of the group stages atop the group, all the Neapolitans had to do was hold their own at Anfield and advance to the round of 16, but ultimately it was previous results that hindered them.
Despite being the only team in the group that was unbeaten before this game, their back to back draws against PSG and the stalemate in the opening fixture away at Crvena Zvezda proved costly.
Gli Azzurri have been unfortunate to be placed in the so called ‘group of death,’ as in many if not all of the other groups in the tournament their performances would have birthed better results and a path through the first phase of the Champions League.
They had their chances in this match, with Marek Hamsik firing an early strike over the bar and Jose Callejon missing at the back post almost improbably, however aside from that they were limited largely to half chances as they struggled to break down the hosts back four.
Whether or not they give the Europa League a large sum of their effort will remain to be seen, especially given the fact that Juventus already seem to be running away with Serie A yet again, but should they give it the attention it deserves they will have a very realistic chance of bringing some silverware to the Stadio San Paolo this season.
How far can Liverpool go?
With last season’s final heartache still undoubtedly at the back of their minds, Jurgen Klopp will set his team out to do it all again in the knockout stages of the Champions League.
Finishing second in the group on this occasion will give them a slight disadvantage when compared to last season, however they did go on to need to pass Manchester City and AS Roma in any case from their first placed position a year ago.
A possible rematch with Real Madrid could be on the cards, a replay of the 2016 Europa League quarter finals against Borussia Dortmund is a possibility or a return to Portugal and the Estadio do Dragao where they beat Porto 5-0 last term is a potential landing place.
Klopp’s team proved to the world last season that they can match anyone in Europe’s elite competition, and this season they have taken one step further in their development with their domestic form giving rise to their best league start in the club’s history.
Three losses away from home in the group stages provide an issue that will need to be rectified in the upcoming two-legged ties, but Liverpool teams through the years have always known when to step up, and this time will be no different as they chase a sixth European Cup and a first trophy since 2012.