Liverpool ended Napoli’s flawless Champions League record with victory at Anfield but still had to settle for second place in Group A.
Jurgen Klopp’s side were looking to bounce back from Saturday’s home defeat by Leeds United and their spirits will be lifted by late goals from Mohamed Salah and Darwin Nunez which ended the impressive Serie A leaders’ unbeaten 21-game run.
Liverpool never looked remotely like securing the four-goal winning margin they would have needed against Napoli – who have exerted complete domination over the group – to finish top, but these three points will act as a real boost to morale.
Thiago Alcantara brought a save from Napoli keeper Alex Meret in the first half, while Napoli thought they had broken the deadlock after the break only for defender Leo Ostigard’s header from a free-kick to be ruled out for offside after a lengthy video assistant referee (VAR) examination.
A game of few chances looked to be heading for a draw but Liverpool snatched the win when Mohamed Salah forced home a close-range finish with five minutes to go, with Nunez sealing the deal in added time.
“I would have really enjoyed the game even without the goals,” Klopp told BT Sport. “We showed tonight a reaction. Being compact makes all the difference.
We have challenges in the right placed and are difficult to play against. You see what Napoli are able to do in the moment. “It was a really good game for us.
A lot of courage and bravery, going into challenges and making a fight of it. Two set-pieces bring us the points and 15 points in a Champions League group is insane.”
The vulnerability of Liverpool’s defence, not helped by a struggling midfield, has been one of the features of their disappointing start to the season but Ibrahima Konate showed what they have been missing as they confirmed a slot in the last 16 of the Champions League.
Konate suffered a pre-season knee injury that forced him to miss the start of the campaign, then he was sidelined again by a further muscle problem that saw Liverpool’s rearguard struggle badly without him.
The 23-year-old France defender returned against the formidable Napoli attack and gave an outstanding display as Liverpool looked a far more secure proposition than they have in recent times.
Konate’s defensive quality alongside Virgil van Dijk kept the dangerous Victor Osimhen at bay, showing composure, pace and physical presence as Napoli suffered the rare taste of defeat.
True, Napoli were not at their most destructive and knew it would take something truly special from Liverpool to turn this group on its head, but the class demonstrated by Konate illustrated exactly why manager Jurgen Klopp will hope this talented young defender can now have an injury-free run for the rest of the season.
Liverpool’s form and approach have been questioned after defeats by struggling Nottingham Forest and Leeds United – criticism justified given just how poor they were, looking a shadow of the team that spent nearly all of last season in pursuit of a historic quadruple.
Klopp’s team will take great heart from beating Napoli, although context must be given in that the Italians knew only a four-goal margin of defeat would make any difference to the group standings.
It removed a large element of jeopardy from the group, Liverpool’s goals coming so late that there was never any opportunity for Anfield to be whipped up into any sort of frenzy of expectation.
This, however, was an example of what Liverpool can do but also showed the two faces of their season so far.
They have beaten Manchester City and Napoli at Anfield without conceding a goal but also suffered those damaging losses to teams who have spent the early part of this term in struggle, as well as losing at Manchester United and Arsenal, two teams they have punished heavily in recent seasons.
Liverpool looked more secure at the back, survived a VAR scare when Odigard thought he had scored, then ended the match on a high with those two late scrambled goals that will act as a real mood changer for manager Klopp, his players and the club’s followers who have been so disappointed by their form so far this season.
The key now is consistency and Liverpool face a serious test of their credentials when they travel to Tottenham, who savoured victory in Marseille that saw them win their group, for a Premier League tie on Sunday.