Perhaps it would be stretching the truth to say this victory will be cherished among the great European nights here. That, however, is only because the list is already so extensive and the jubilation at the final whistle signalled how much it meant to Jürgen Klopp, his players and a hugely appreciative crowd. Liverpool had made it through and the Premier League leaders can be greatly encouraged by the way they handled a potentially treacherous night.
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They did, briefly, torture their crowd with the prospect of a dramatic late twist when Arkadiusz Milik, one of Napoli’s substitutes, suddenly found the ball at his feet inside the six-yard box, two minutes into stoppage time.
For a split second, it was a shudder of apprehension reverberating through the stadium. Alisson, the Liverpool goalkeeper, was off his line, spreading his body, limbs pointing north, west, south and east, and the shot was blocked. “The save of the season,” Klopp called it. “I have no clue how he made that save.” In truth, Milik aimed his shot straight at the goalkeeper. But for the players in red, that save was celebrated almost like a goal.
That apart, it was difficult to recall too many other occasions when Napoli threatened to score the goal that could have eliminated their opponents.
José Callejón had one chance at the far post after a rare lapse from Andy Robertson and early in the game Marek Hamsik sent a 20-yard effort just over the crossbar. That, however, turned out to be a deception if it left the impression Liverpool were in for a torrid evening and, if anything, it was a surprise they did not add more goals to the one Mohamed Salah scored in the first half.
Sadio Mané had a wasteful game, missing three golden opportunities and denied by an offside flag when he did put the ball in the net. Mané’s carelessness might have been costly in difficult circumstances. Here, it was only a footnote with Salah reinforcing the growing belief that he had shaken off whatever was holding him back a few months ago. On this form, it cannot be long before Liverpool’s outstanding player starts smiling again in his goal celebrations.
The only downside for Liverpool was a first-half booking for Virgil van Dijk because of his follow-through, studs-up, in a challenge on Dries Mertens. Van Dijk’s yellow card means he will be suspended from the first leg of their last-16 tie. Otherwise, last season’s finalists can reflect on a hugely satisfying night’s work, especially when it began with the knowledge that even a score of 2-1, for example, could put them out of the competition. Instead, it is Napoli, currently second in Serie A, who drop into the Europa League.
For both sides, the risk factor was high and the bulletins from the Rajko Mitic stadium, where Paris Saint-Germain’s 4-1 victory against Red Star Belgrade meant the French champions topped the group, added to the drama.
Yet there is a reasonable theory that is how Anfield likes it best: under the floodlights, with the volume turned up and a kaleidoscope of banners on the Kop recalling the club’s pedigree in Europe. For Liverpool, it was an examination of their temperament, as much as their skill, and they passed with distinction.
The game’s decisive moment arrived in the 34th minute and though Salah has scored more spectacular goals it was still a wonderful demonstration of his wit and creativity in tight areas, his ability to conjure up goals out of almost nothing and his love for the big occasion. His body strength, too, judging by the way he held off Mário Rui, the Napoli left-back, when the ball initially reached him to the right of the penalty area.
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Suddenly, Salah was picking up pace, gliding away from the next opponent, Kalidou Koulibaly, into a position where he could take aim. As he continued this diagonal run, it was his sideways look that fooled David Ospina into thinking a cross was coming, rather than a shot. The scam was brilliant and as the former Arsenal goalkeeper moved off his line the ball was directed through the gap in his legs. It was the eighth time this season Salah had opened the scoring for his team.
It was not long before the television cameras picked out one of the Italian supporters in tears but, at that stage, there was still two-thirds of the game to play and it was reasonable to think Carlo Ancelotti’s team would commit more players into attack, knowing it was imperative they found a goal for themselves.
An equaliser would have meant Liverpool needing to score twice more. It was strange, therefore, that Napoli did not react more urgently to this do or die scenario. With so much at stake, they seemed surprisingly passive, careless with the ball and struggled to create any real momentum.
The question for Liverpool was whether they could shut out their opponents and 14 clean sheets from their previous 18 home games suggested they could.
Equally, we should know enough about Klopp’s ethos by now to realise his players would keep looking for more goals. They could not find one and Mané will not wish to see the replays of his penalty-box misses. Ultimately, however, Alisson’s late heroics ensured that did not matter.