Late goals from Mohamed Salah and Darwin Nunez earned Liverpool a 2-0 victory over Napoli on Tuesday but it was not enough to deny the Italians the top spot in Champions League Group A.
Both teams had already sealed a knockout-stage place, but the top spot in the group, and a potentially more favourable last-16 opponent, was still up for grabs, with Liverpool needing to beat Napoli by four goals or more to sneak to the summit.
The first half felt like an encounter where both teams’ main priority had been fulfilled, but the game sprang to life early in the second when Leo Ostigard thought he had put Napoli in front, only for his header to be ruled offside after a VAR check.
With nothing to lose and the top spot out of reach, Liverpool did at least manage to secure victory on the night, with Salah prodding home at the far post five minutes from time, before Nunez added a second in stoppage time.
Napoli’s 4-1 demolition of Liverpool in their group opener in September proved crucial in the end, as it finished on 15 points, the same as Liverpool, but with a better goal difference in clashes between the pair.
When the draw was made, few would have tipped Napoli to be group winners ahead of last season’s finalists Liverpool, but Luciano Spalletti’s team have been in sensational form right from the start of the campaign.
Napoli travelled to England unbeaten in all competitions all season, having won its last 13 games in a row – a run stretching back to before its humiliation of Liverpool in September.
It took a more reserved approach from the off at Anfield, happy to sit back and invite pressure from the hosts.
Nigerian striker Victor Osimhen, who had scored six goals in his previous four games in all competitions, should have done better from a good position in the first half before Liverpool countered and Thiago Alcantara brought a fine save out of Alex Meret in the away goal.
The game needed something to ignite it, and Napoli’s overturned opener did just that, with the Italians frustrated by how long the decision took to make.
Liverpool stepped it up a gear after that, with Nunez making a real difference when he came off the bench.
It was the Uruguayan whose header was saved before Salah prodded in, and he showed his poacher’s instincts at the death to tap home, a goal awarded following another lengthy VAR review.
Salah has now scored 43 Champions League goals and is just one goal away from equalling Didier Drogba as the top-scoring African player in the competition.