Goalkeeper Alisson Becker was labelled a “life saver” by Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp for a last-gasp save that secured a 1-0 win over Napoli at Anfield and progress to the last 16 of the Champions League on Tuesday.
Mohamed Salah’s stunning solo effort put the hosts in front 11 minutes before half-time, but Liverpool were nearly made to pay for their profligacy in missing a series of second-half chances.
Alisson had barely been tested until the Brazilian number one spread himself brilliantly to deny Arkadiusz Milik a dramatic stoppage-time equaliser and go a long way to justifying the then-world record £67-million ($85 million) fee for a goalkeeper Liverpool paid Roma in July.
“If I knew Alisson was this good –- I would have paid double,” joked Klopp.
“The goal Mo scored, what a goal! And the save Ali made (was) unbelievable. It was of course a life saver tonight.”
Despite losing all three of their away games in Group C, three home wins at fortress Anfield were enough to see Liverpool through to the knockout stage on goals scored over the Italians in second place behind Paris Saint-Germain, who won 4-1 away to Red Star Belgrade to secure top spot.
“I’m still full of adrenaline, I could feel it in bubbles,” added Klopp.
“This game was just amazing. The boys played with their whole heart on the pitch.”
Liverpool’s charge to the Champions League final last season was spearheaded by Salah’s 44-goal season.
And after signalling his return to top form by scoring a hat-trick in a 4-0 win at Bournemouth on Saturday that sent Liverpool to the top of the Premier League, Salah’s 13th goal of the campaign relegated Napoli to the Europa League in the new year despite losing for the first time in Europe this season.
“It’s a real shame our efforts haven’t been rewarded,” said Napoli coach Carlo Ancelotti.
“We have no regrets. Overall the group of players have done extremely well, we took it down to the wire.
“You can’t expect to come to Liverpool and create 10 really good chances, we had one or two and didn’t have the luck to take one of them.”
– Van Dijk’s lunge –
The outcome could have been very different if Virgil van Dijk had been sent off rather than just shown a yellow card that will keep him out of the first leg of Liverpool’s last-16 tie for a dangerous lunge on Dries Mertens after just 15 minutes.
UEFA will introduce the video assistant referee (VAR) system for the last 16, but Ancelotti bemoaned the delay in using the technology during the group stage.
“Seeing on the video, I knew it was a red card,” added Ancelotti. “When VAR comes in (to) the Champions League, it is too late.”
Liverpool took control as the first half wore on and broke the deadlock when Salah outmuscled Mario Rui and skipped past Kalidou Koulibaly before squeezing the ball underneath Ospina from a narrow angle.
Had Liverpool conceded they would have had to win by two goals due to their 1-0 defeat in Naples, and the hosts failed to cash in on their dominance of the early stages of the second half and avoid a nervy ending.
Salah pulled his shot into the side-netting with a far better angle from the one he scored, while Milner and Van Dijk sent long-range efforts flying just wide of the target.
Ospina made acrobatic saves to keep out Salah and Mane once more before Mane failed to hit the target with two glorious chances to Klopp’s dismay.
Napoli should have levelled 12 minutes from time when Jose Maria Callejon spooned over a glorious chance at the back post.
But their best opportunity came at the death only for Alisson to stand tall to keep a 12th clean sheet in 22 appearances and ensure Liverpool live to fight another day in the Champions League this season.