Salah the saviour keeps Liverpool in Champions League

It may not have been quite as dramatic or memorable as that Steven Gerrard goal almost 14 years ago to the day but, as Mohamed Salah clinched Liverpool’s place in the Champions League knockout stages, this important victory certainly carried echoes of that famous night.

Salah the saviour keeps Liverpool in Champions League

Liverpool 1 Napoli 0

By Ian Whittell

It may not have been quite as dramatic or memorable as that Steven Gerrard goal almost 14 years ago to the day but, as Mohamed Salah clinched Liverpool’s place in the Champions League knockout stages, this important victory certainly carried echoes of that famous night.

Gerrard’s legendary strike against Olympiakos just before Christmas 2004 carried Liverpool through the group stages and on towards the Miracle of Istanbul and the last of their five Champions League titles five months later.

Napoli may have offered little serious threat to Jurgen Klopp’s side last night, at least until a late flurry of possession, and on-loan Arsenal keeper David Ospina contributed to Salah’s goal, but there was still enough tension in the Anfield air to add this to that seemingly inexhaustible list of memorable European nights at this stadium.

Certainly that was the case deep in injury-time when Alisson made his one real save of the night, a point-blank stop to deny Napoli substitute Arkadisuz Milik.

But if Salah has lost a slight edge from last season’s astonishing goalscoring instinct, he has still enjoyed his moments this term and here, at a crucial stage some 11 minutes before the interval, came another one as he carried Liverpool through to the last 16.

It was from a decent enough James Milner through ball and ended with a poor piece of goalkeeping from Ospina, but in between were two instinctive and majestic manoeuvres from the Egyptian striker that left defenders trailing in his wake.

First, he spun past left-back Mario Rui, who was left optimistically appealing for a foul, and advanced before jinking past the impressive centre-half Kalidou Koulibaly.

The Napoli man even tried a tug on the red shirt moving past him yet there was still hope for the Italian side as Salah approached the near post, covered by Ospina, from a wide angle.

Yet the goalkeeper appeared to anticipate a cross from Salah, edging off his line and presenting an opportunity which the Liverpool man gratefully accepted, shoving the ball through the embarrassed goalkeeper’s legs.

With Paris Saint-Germain predictably ahead at Red Star Belgrade, the goal was so sorely needed yet, in one of those mathematical quirks of European football, actually offered Liverpool only the slenderest of cushions.

A single Napoli goal would in response leave Liverpool needing two more, their requirements on the night necessitating - among the various scenarios - either a 1-0 win for Klopp’s team or a victory by two clear goals.

Yet for all the mathematical permutations, there had been uncompromising starts from both teams, even Carlo Ancelotti’s Napoli who needed just a point to advance.

Just seven minutes had gone when Andrew Robertson’s perfect left-wing cross picked out Salah whose poor first touch steered the ball meekly to Ospina.

The Italians bit back, Dries Mertens’ intelligent pull back finding Marek Hamsik on the edge of the area only for the Slovakian to lean back and shoot just over.

Trent Alexander-Arnold, increasingly influential down the right, sent over a cross which Milner headed over and then laid on an opening which Sadio Mane put in the back of the net but from a clearly offside position.

The goal soon followed, to ease the pressure going into the interval, although there had been signs that the visitors could respond and consign Liverpool to the worst possible fate of a third place finish and a commitment to take part in the interminable latter stages of the Europa League in the new year.

That would have been the most damaging of outcomes for Liverpool’s primary goal in 2019 which, surely, has to be to hold off Manchester City and end a 30-year wait for a league championship.

But the current Liverpool defence is a very different beast to that of years gone by; that of even one year gone by, given the defensive nightmare that unfolded in last season’s Champions League Final loss to Real Madrid.

The Premier League’s best defence had conceded just five times in 10 games at Anfield this season prior to Napoli’s visit and even without the injured Joe Gomez and with Dejan Lovren fit enough only for the bench, Joel Matip had turned in a solid first half.

After the interval there was little for the defence to be too concerned about initially, with more poor play from Napoli seeing Jordan Henderson win the ball from Hamsik and Roberto Firmino playing in Salah who shot into the side netting.

Raul Albiol offered a momentary reminder of the dangers posed by the circumstances, heading a corner straight at Alisson, but Liverpool surged on looking for the all-important second.

There was some late Liverpool concern, with Jose Callejon missing Napoli’s best chance but Salah, Mane, three times, and Georginio Wijnaldum all wasted glorious openings to wrap up the tie as Ospina made some amends for his earlier error.

LIVERPOOL (4-3-3): Alisson 6; Alexander-Arnold 8 (Lovren 89), Matip 7, van Dijk 9, Robertson 7; Wijnaldum 6, Henderson 7, Milner 8 (Fabinho 84); Salah 8, Firmino 6 (Keita 79, 6), Mane 5.

Substitutes (not used): Sturridge, Mignolet, Shaqiri, Origi.

NAPOLI (4-4-2): Ospina 5; Maksimovic 6, Albiol 7, Koulibaly 7, Mario Rui 5 (Ghoulam 69, 7); Callejon 8, Allan 6, Hamsik 6, Fabian Ruiz 6 (Zielinski 62, 5); Mertens 5 (Milik 67, 6), Insigne 5.

Substitutes (not used): Ounas, Hysaj, Karnezis, Diawara.

Referee: D Skomina 8

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