Liverpool were saved the ignominy of an early Champions League elimination against Napoli by the slimmest of margins, as the huge money invested in goalkeeper Alisson Becker came good in a tense 1-0 win over the Italians.
The Brazilian number one rushed from his goal and spread his 6ft 3in (1.91 metre) frame to bravely block from Arkadiusz Milik deep into stoppage time. The save also preserved his 12th clean sheet in 22 appearances since Liverpool splashed a then world record £67-million ($85 million) fee on a goalkeeper in July.
“If I knew Alisson was this good – I would have paid double,” said a beaming Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp, clearly relieved to have escaped the group stages despite losing all three away games to group winners Paris Saint-Germain, Napoli and Red Star Belgrade.
Tied on points and head-to-head record with Napoli, Liverpool only progressed because they totalled more goals in their six group games.
“The save Ali made (was) unbelievable. It was of course a lifesaver tonight,” added Klopp.
Liverpool’s latest European night of joy at Anfield was saved because the club reacted to one to forget back in May.
Two huge errors from Loris Karius in last season’s 3-1 Champions League final defeat to Spanish giants Real Madrid proved the final straw for Klopp and his superiors when it came to skimping on goalkeepers.
Emboldened by the success of spending a world record £75 million for a defender on Virgil van Dijk in January from Southampton, and by Mohamed Salah’s 44-goal debut season after his high-priced signing from Roma, Liverpool again poached one of the Italian club’s marquee players in Alisson.
All three played a huge part on Tuesday. Salah scored the only goal of the game. After being fortunate to escape with just a yellow card for an early lunge on Dries Mertens, Van Dijk brilliantly marshalled the defence to give Napoli barely a sniff until Alisson’s late intervention.
“He’s been fantastic for Liverpool and for us,” said Van Dijk on Alisson’s impact.
“He’s a great character, a great guy and he helps us all. He gives confidence to everyone. That’s how it is and how it should be as well, for the whole team.”
— Guilty parties —
Liverpool shone at the other end of the pitch as they reached the final last season, with Salah, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino each scoring 10 Champions League goals.
The Egyptian is starting to show signs of his old form. He followed his hat-trick at Bournemouth on Saturday with a stunning solo run and finish on Tuesday, but he was also among the guilty parties as Liverpool spurned a host of second-half chances that could have proved costly.
Mane was even more wayward, firing off target twice in the closing minutes with just David Ospina to beat.
“That Ali needs to make the fantastic save is something that wasn’t really necessary if we’d scored all the goals,” added Van Dijk.
Liverpool, the five-time European champions, have a history of going far in this competition despite starting slowly.
Steven Gerrard’s thunderous strike four minutes from time in their final group game against Olympiakos in the 2004 inspired an unlikely run to win the Champions League the following May with a far inferior squad to the one at Klopp’s disposal.
After finishing second in the group, Liverpool face the potential of a tough last 16 draw against the likes of Barcelona, Real Madrid, Juventus or Bayern Munich.
But with Alisson as their last line of defence, Klopp’s men will remain confident of another deep run to the latter stages come the new year.