The great European nights of Anfield folklore have usually had a goal scorer’s name written in lights next to them.
David Fairclough against St Etienne in 1977. Steven Gerrard against Olympiakos in 2004 and Luis Garcia against Chelsea four months later. And there are others. Now, after another breathtaking night of Champions League football on Merseyside, there is a goalkeeper to talk about too.
If Liverpool’s last Champions League campaign ended in goalkeeping calamity for Loris Karius in Kiev, this one was given the kiss of life by his replacement, the Brazilian Alisson at the Anfield Road End in the third minute of added time.
Mohamed Salah was the man of the moment for Liverpool once again and broke the deadlock in the 34th minute of the game
The Egyptian worked his way into the area and smashed his shot through the legs of David Ospina in goal
The keeper seemed to predict that Salah would go for a cutback but Salah called his bluff and went for goal
Alisson came up with a brilliant save in added time to stop Arkadiusz Milik and ensure Liverpool’s progression
The Liverpool goalkeeper staying big and the replacement Napoli striker could hardly believe his eyes
Jurgen Klopp gave Salah one of his bear hugs at full-time after the Egyptian’s goal proved to be the difference
Napoli had been largely outplayed by Liverpool here. Only poor finishing by Jurgen Klopp’s team had kept their lead down to the single goal scored by Mohamed Salah in the first half.
But it was always likely that the Italian side would get one chance. It is usually the way in games like this and Carlo Ancelotti’s team had looked dangerous on the break all night. They were too good a team not to give themselves at least one puncher’s chance at glory.
The problem for Liverpool was that when it came, it came so late that there would have been no way back. And it did look for all the world as though the big Napoli substitute Arkadiusz Milik was about to end Liverpool’s interest in the competition at a surprisingly early stage.
Liverpool’s central defenders Virgil van Dijk and Joel Matip had been excellent all night, almost faultless. Van Dijk, booked early, was absolutely magnificent on the whole.
But here three Liverpool players were attracted to the ball as a cross arrived from the right. That is the kind of thing that panic can do. And when the ball arrived at the feet of Milik on the edge of the six-yard box he controlled it perfectly to present himself with his chance.
MATCH FACTS, GROUP TABLE AND MATCHZONE
Alisson, Alexander-Arnold (Lovren), Matip, van Dijk, Robertson, Wijnaldum, Henderson, Milner (Fabinho), Salah, Firmino (Keita), Mané
Sturridge, Mignolet, Shaqiri, Origi
Bookings: Van Dijk
Goals: Salah (34)
Ospina, Maksimovic, Albiol, Koulibaly, Rui (Ghoulam) , Callejón, Loureiro, Hamsik, Ruiz (Zielinski), Insigne, Mertens (Milik)
Ounas, Hysaj, Karnezis, Diawara
Referee: Damir Skomina
The Liverpool players ran over to celebrate with Salah who once again was more muted in his reaction to scoring
The Anfield faithful were in full voice on another huge Champions League night for their club at home
Jurgen Klopp punched the air and the Liverpool staff celebrated the Reds taking the lead in the first half
With the ball bouncing up nicely after his first touch, Milik did absolutely nothing wrong. The contact with the right instep was perfect and measured. The ball was on its way in to the net. It had to be a goal, it just had to be. Liverpool were on their way in to the Europa League.
But Alisson knew that he had only one chance. The odds were against him but if he made himself big then the gods may favour him.
So he did and they did. The ball struck him on the thigh and rebounded up in to the air. Milik tried desperately to retrieve a lost cause with an overhead kick as the ball dropped but the chance had gone and with it the game.
It really was the most extraordinary end to a superb game, a contest kept on the knife edge all night not only by Liverpool’s failure to kill it but also by the complex mathematics that preceded it.
Liverpool knew, for example, that 1-0 would take them through but 2-1 wouldn’t. So even as they pressed for the second goal in a second half they dominated, they knew that just one strike from their talented opponents would do them like a stiletto through the shoulder blades.
Against that background, it was no surprise that this was a nerve shredder. Liverpool were terrific, they really were.
Napoli had dug in and looked a possible threat in attack but found themselves behind after Salah’s brilliance
Carlo Ancelotti gestured to his players to remain calm after they went behind towards the end of the first period
Marek Hamsik was one of the shining lights for the Serie A side and acquitted himself well in midfield
Virgil van Dijk was cautioned after this tackle on Dries Mertens caught the ankle with his follow through
There was a 20 minute spell at the start of the second half that saw Klopp’s team press and hurry Napoli with such ferocity that memories of last season’s destruction of Manchester City and Roma at Anfield came flooding back.
The only difference was that they didn’t score the glut of goals we have become used to. Salah gave them the lead in the 34th minute, turning away from Mario Rui, darting in to the penalty area past Kalidou Koulibaly and beating goalkeeper David Ospina at the near post.
It was a brilliantly taken goal that came in a half that Liverpool had dominated territorially without making too many opportunities that were clear.
Napoli had been dangerous on the counter and had created a couple of chances of their own. From the very start the Italians looked as though they could find a way to the Liverpool goal if they really had to.
But in the second half it was different. Liverpool played with a greater tempo, their transition and final pass were better and had their finishing been of the same standard then they would have eased away in to the distance.
The Liverpool centre-back felt hard done by and replays showed he cleanly won the ball before taking out the man
Liverpool and Napoli players surrounded the referee in one of the more contentious moments in the first half
Andy Robertson was his usual energetic self down the left flank and offered a constant outlet to the midfielders
Salah had a great early chance but his touch was heavy and Ospina gathered before he could get his shot away
Ospina – once of Arsenal – saved point blank from Sadio Mane and was also equal to a diving header from Roberto Firmino and a low drive from the improving Jordan Henderson. He should not, though, have been given a chance by Salah who dragged one chance wide of the near post and tried to take the ball round him on another occasion only to overrun it on the back of what may have been slight contact from a defender.
Van Dijk also missed a golden opportunity, slicing a volley in to the Kop from inside the six yard box after Liverpool had worked a free-kick nicely from the right side. At that point there were only a few minutes left and it seemed increasingly likely that something dramatic would happen at the other end.
When Napoli’s right-sided forward Jose Callejon spooned a very good chance over the angle of post and bar it seemed that the big moment of the second half had indeed come and gone. Callejon should have scored as it was practically an open goal.
But it turned out that there was still something left, something even more dramatic. Milik will wonder how he missed but the fact is he didn’t. He was denied. There is a difference,
Mario Rui was in for a busy night and Salah constantly pressurised the full-back every time he was in possession
James Milner busied himself in midfield and was combative throughout for Jurgen Klopp’s side
Trent Alexander-Arnold was forced off the pitch with an injury late on but Liverpool held firm and move on in the tournament
Sadio Mane spurned the chance to put Liverpool two goals ahead in stoppage time but skewed his chance wide
There was joy for Liverpool and misery for Napoli who bow out of the Champions League at the group stage
Salah may not have celebrated the goal but wore a broad grin on his face after the relief of the final whistle