Luciano Spalletti claimed Napoli dropped their guard once they knew Liverpool would not win by the four-goal margin needed to top the group. He was correct, although that was never the priority for Jürgen Klopp given the doubts and questions circling over Liverpool’s direction. Just to inflict a first defeat of the season on the Serie A leaders was enough.
Usurping Napoli at the summit of Group A never looked a possibility at Anfield but that did not prevent Klopp signalled his intent when introducing Darwin Núñez in the 73rd minute of the finale. The Uruguay international made quite the impact. First he connected with a Kostas Tsimikas corner to force Alex Meret into a desperate save on, and almost just over, the goalline that spilled into the path of Mohamed Salah. The striker made no mistake from a yard out to equal Steven Gerrard’s club record of 41 European goals for Liverpool.
Deep into stoppage time, and after Meret had parried Virgil van Dijk’s header from another Tsimikas corner, Núñez also tapped home from close range. VAR overturned the initial decision to disallow the goal for offside and the summer signing had his fifth goal from his last seven outings.
Klopp had win number 249 on his 400th game as Liverpool manager. His team had a modicum of revenge for that mauling in Naples at the start of the campaign. Five consecutive European victories since represents a stirring recovery, and the consistency that Liverpool need to discover in the Premier League.
“I don’t regret anything about tonight, that we did not win the group or go for a third and fourth goal or whatever,” the Liverpool manager said. “We had the worst possible start to this group with the performance against Napoli, we helped them a bit with our performance and gave them all the confidence they needed. Napoli deserve first place in the group but there are no regrets.
“It was the reaction I wanted to see. We all agreed we had to show a reaction [after the defeat to Leeds] and we did it in a very difficult game against a very good opponent. We were compact and we showed the right determination, as you could see with us being there for the two rebounds.”
The group finale marked Klopp’s 100th game as a manager in the Champions League, for Liverpool and Borussia Dortmund, and was a tame affair from two teams who played in the knowledge they were already qualified for the knockout stage. Until Núñez’s introduction, that is.
Liverpool were dealt another injury blow early in the second half when James Milner was forced off. The 36-year-old received treatment for a blow to the head shortly before the interval and signalled to the bench moments after the restart after over-stretching while attempting to close down Mathías Olivera. Harvey Elliott entered the fray as the disconsolate midfielder headed down the tunnel.
Klopp’s problems appeared to deepen when Leo Østigård sent a diving header beyond Alisson five minutes later. A foul by Fabinho on Olivera gave Khvicha Kvaratskhelia the chance to whip in a free-kick from the left and the eye-catching Georgian delivered to perfection. The set piece arched over Victor Osimhen and the impressive Ibrahima Konaté into the heart of the Liverpool area where the Napoli defender, left unmarked by Van Dijk, headed home at full stretch. The goal was given but after a VAR review lasting three minutes – forcing players from both sides to perform warm-up exercises as they awaited the verdict – the central defender’s ear and shoulder were found to be offside.
Napoli fumed and defender Kim Min-jae went through the back of Roberto Firmino when played resumed but somehow escaped a booking. Kvaratskhelia had a good chance to cut short Liverpool’s sense of reprieve but, from Osimhen’s deep cross to the far post, the unmarked forward volleyed tamely at Alisson.
There was more quality on display in the second half with Napoli’s powerful midfield taking the game to Liverpool and the home side dangerous down the flanks. Klopp introduced Núñez at the expense of Curtis Jones and the switch paid dividends when the forward played an instrumental role in Liverpool’s late victory. Núñez thought he had scored the breakthrough, Salah made sure, and thought the second goal had been disallowed only for VAR to spot that the trailing leg of Piotr Zielinski had kept him onside.
“I am proud of not only getting through the group but topping it,” said Spalletti. “If I am being pedantic and we look at the last 10 minutes, the players felt we had reached our objective, that it is highly unlikely Liverpool will score the number of goals to top the group and our level dropped.
Perhaps that is part of our character. Liverpool played flat out because that is what they always do, that is part of their character.”