Despite going unbeaten in the first five games of their Champions League group, Napoli’s 1-0 loss away to Liverpool in their last group match saw them exit the competition.
Given their performances over the first five games, the visitors knew that a draw would have been enough to see them through, or even a 2-1 defeat, but lacked any kind of urgency on the night.
They lacked their usual confidence and precision in possession throughout and an error from goalkeeper David Ospina helped Mohamed Salah to the crucial goal, which extended Napoli’s wait for a win on English soil to seven games, as they must now ponder the prospect of Europa League football after Christmas.
Napoli should have found themselves behind after seven minutes when Andrew Robertson picked out Salah unmarked in the area but his loose touch safely carried the ball into the arms of the grateful Ospina, with Marek Hamsik going close at the other end moments later as the game swung back and forth in the early going.
That fast pace kept up in a game that had greater tension placed upon it after news filtered through of an early PSG goal in Belgrade but with the greater sense of urgency on the hosts, they found it tough to carve out real clearcut opportunities until shortly after the half hour mark.
But such is the class of Salah that on 33 minutes, he opted to cut out the middle men and do it all for himself to grab the opener by shimmying his way past Kalidou Koulibaly and steering a shot into the far corner from an acute angle, although the goalkeeping of Ospina in beating beaten through his legs at his near post left much to be desired.
Instead of an expected Napoli reaction after the break, it was the home side who looked more like scoring but after Salah left Mario Rui, who again looked like a fish out of water in a big game, for dead, he dragged his attempt wide of the mark.
The Partenopei couldn’t impose themselves on Jurgen Klopp’s side whatsoever, struggling against the Liverpool press and losing possession at the back and in midfield much too easily, leading to opportunities for both Jordan Henderson and James Milner.
Some astute substitutions did help Napoli look like more of a threat in the final 20 minutes (and given that a second goal Liverpool wouldn’t have changed their task, you wonder why they didn’t take more risks earlier) and when the chance did finally arrive in injury time, Arkadiusz Milik fired straight at Alisson from seven yards out to end his side’s Champions League adventure.
MERET ON MERIT
Alex Meret is finally fit and made his long-awaited Napoli debut in the weekend win over Frosinone. Ancelotti understandably couldn’t throw him into such a huge Champions League game so quickly after returning from injury but he was signed as a No 1 and that’s what he should now be. Ospina’s part in the Salah goal was large and, unfortunately, not entirely unexpected. He is a goalkeeper who you feel always has that kind of error in him and it cost Napoli when they needed reliability the most. It is time for Meret.
THE CHAMPIONS LEAGUE’S UNLUCKIEST SIDE?
What is it about Napoli and this competition? They made history in the past by becoming the first team ever to exit the competition after winning four games and picking up 12 points. This year, they’ve done it again as despite going the first five games without tasting defeat, one slip at the death proved costly as they exited on goals scored! Results against Red Star are ultimately what did for them. Their opening game 0-0 was costly, as was conceding a late consolation at home in their 3-1 win, as had they held on that night, a 1-0 loss at Anfield would have sufficed.