Liverpool’s bid for at least one midweek off in December was scuppered by Napoli as the Italians gained a measure of revenge for their Anfield exit a year ago.
The spirit of Jurgen Klopp’s side was in evidence again as Dejan Lovren’s equaliser secured a 1-1 draw. Dries Mertens had earlier threatened to ensure Carlo Ancelotti became the first visiting coach to win at Anfield in Europe since Klopp’s appointment.
But the draw is not enough to erase Salzburg’s chances of sending Liverpool into the Europa League next month. The Austrians will prepare for the biggest night in their history after giving Klopp’s side a fright on Merseyside earlier in the competition.
There was much to admire about Ancelotti’s side as they avoided the barrage expected following Lovren’s 65th-minute header. It never materialised when it seemed another late winner would come for Klopp’s side, especially as lively substitute Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain led the charge.
Liverpool were seeking the victory not only to guarantee a top spot but also give their coach the luxury of making wholesale changes for the final game of the group. There is no prospect of that now. Napoli will meet the whipping boys of the group, Genk, while Liverpool must ensure they do not become part of a rival’s European history. It was a headache Klopp could do without although he will keep perspective with his side still only needing a draw.
There was a three-minute spell when an anxious hush fell upon Anfield, the likes of which Klopp may never have heard in this stadium before – certainly not on a European night.
Virgil Van Dijk was lying in agony in the centre-circle, his teammates urging medical staff to come to his attention.
Only three minutes earlier Fabinho – the imperious centre midfielder who has probably been Liverpool’s player of the season so far – had departed after requiring similarly lengthy treatment on his ankle.
Around them, Mohamed Salah had been hunting without much joy for his confidence, first touch and goal compass; Andy Robertson kept giving the ball away when trying to send Sadio Mane down the left-wing; and Joe Gomez, preferred to Trent Alexander-Arnold, was struggling to replicate the crossing ability of the man he replaced.
Of more pertinence, as Van Dijk was treated, the Napoli players were celebrating a goal by Dries Mertens, who had taken advantage of the space vacated by the centre-half to pounce on Giovanni Di Lorenzo’s pass and beat Alisson from a tight angle.
The Kop silently awaited two verdicts. The first, courtesy of VAR, was negative. The TV pictures declared a valid goal despite the initial appearance of a foul and then an offside.
The second bulletin about Van Dijk was received more enthusiastically, as he dusted himself down and tried to lead the charge back into the game. For those moments in the 21st minute, Liverpool were not only considering the implication of their Champions League group potentially heading to a final game shoot-out in Austria, but their domestic ambitions.
To lose one influential player ahead of the most hectic schedule of the campaign would have been considered an accident, two downright careless.
It was a reminder of the jeopardy in this fixture for Liverpool. Group E had a comfortable look prior to kick-off, but Klopp did not want to head to Salzburg with work still needed to qualify. Only a victory against the Italians could avoid that. A scrappy interrupted first half in which the hosts found their tempo in the closing stages did not bode well.
Napoli may have been embroiled in a civil war in their own city, but Klopp’s prediction they would be freed on foreign soil was prophetic, Carlo Ancelotti offering a timely reminder he is not the busted flush many still presume.
His side was as well organised as any to come to Merseyside this season, doubling up on Liverpool’s wide men and pouncing on every midfield error. Even without Lorenzo Insigne, they carried a threat to extend the discomfort of Klopp’s back four which has lingered despite a prolonged winning run.
A year ago, this fixture was the catalyst for Liverpool’s eventual European conquest, Alisson Becker’s last-minute save redirecting the course of history. It was worth around £60 million given what followed in the knockout stage.
Napoli played as if they were invigorated rather than scarred by the experience, vengeance in every tackle, Telegraph said.