European Progress Confirmed – View from the Kop
European nights at Anfield always have something special about them and as many lifelong reds will tell you, it’s very rare for Liverpool to do anything the easy way. Tuesday night came so close to being one of those nights where everything went against us, the missed chances that would have given us comfort that on any other night would probably have nestled in the net.
The landscape at the club has changed since the last time Napoli came to Anfield. A club narrowly saved from administration under the management of Roy Hodgson with Paul Konchesky at left back and Christian Poulsen in midfield. Liverpool did record a victory on that night though as Steven Gerrard entered from the bench to fire home a hat trick in front of the new owners.
Anfield had expectations based on the rich history of European Nights of Christmas past and with an unbeaten European home record dating back to 2014 when Real Madrid won 3-0 in the Champions League group stages, it was hoped that the record would continue and ensure the road to Madrid continued. The Christmas lights illuminated Anfield’s main stand on an evening when stationed at various locations around the ground were numerous police officers, all with one aim. Any small pockets of disturbance appeared to be dealt with relatively quickly and in stark contrast to many other European opponents over the years, the fans being escorted by police were extremely silent as they were led to various searches before they entered the ground.
“You’ll Never Walk Alone” preceded the players entering the field but once the players were there, the atmosphere began to crank up and the noise intensified and soon it was beginning to be directed at certain parties including Dries Mertens, who had made the foolish decision of ridiculing Anfield before the game. The referee soon received the aggression when he chose to book Virgil Van Dijk for winning the ball off Mertens but catching him on his follow through, but it was to almost be a tail for the night with refereeing decisions. This tackle led to Jordan Henderson laying down the law to his centre-half, something not well received by the Dutchman or many supporters surrounding me. With Mertens making comments in relation to the ground in the build up to the game, he was a clear target for fans frustrations.
The kop momentarily erupted as Sadio Mane managed to put the ball into the net from an Alexander-Arnold ball across but the flag was immediately raised. But it wouldn’t be too long before it was celebrating and not being robbed by a flag. Initial shouts for a possible foul as a defender tried to pull him down but he turned and jinked his way in before putting it past the on-loan Arsenal goalkeeper.
The 2nd half saw Liverpool come to life and at times in the half, it really did look similar to the Liverpool that ended last season and swashbuckled their way in familiar Liverpool style to the final in Kiev. Numerous times in the half it looked like Liverpool would get a 2nd which wouldn’t even have changed what was required for Napoli as 1 goal whether Liverpool were 1-0 or 2-0 up would take the Italians through in Liverpool’s place. Jordan Henderson, who had a poor start but grew into the game and dominated his position, capitalising on another loose ball from Napoli and Salah managed to hold off the attentions of the defender and screw his effort just wide of the Kop end goal. He then rounded Ospina but the slight touch forced him wide and there were screams from the fans behind the goal for a penalty when he was caught by a defender by a possible push but as in many times during the game, the players determination to stay on their feet saw the referee again choosing not to blow for a free kick or in this case a penalty. Even so Salah still attempted to score an outrageous lob but failed to do so.
Salah then sent through Robertson and as his ball went towards Sadio Mane, the expectancy that Mane would finally convert dragged on as his effort was saved by the ‘keeper. It wasn’t all Liverpool pressure and as a ball from probably the smallest man I’ve ever seen on a football field, Insigne, went dangerously across the box evading Robertson and as I resigned myself to seeing an equaliser, Callejon somehow scooped the ball into the Anfield Road end. Loose passing from the Italians then saw Wijnaldum intercept the ball and as Salah put it back once again to Mane he somehow managed to put it past the opposite post to the one Salah had missed earlier in the game.
As the clock ticked away and 4 added minutes were signaled and with Dejan Lovren now on the field to replace Alexander-Arnold, Napoli still had time to cause the heart to intensify its rhythm but to the delirium that followed, Alisson made a point blank save and despite the ball flying back into the area and ending up in the back of the net, the offside flag that was raised in the 1st half for Mane, was now raised and as You’ll Never Walk Alone rang out, the kop just tried to suck the ball in and as Mane raced through once again to end the game in a perfect way he managed to contrive to send it wide but thankfully it didn’t matter and Salah’s goal took us into the draw on Monday and as the whistle went, I could breathe a huge sigh of relief and as the Kop burst into chants of “Alisson, Alisson, Alisson” in respect of that last gasp save, the smiles said it all. As the chants of “Allez Allez Allez” rang out, James Milner amongst the players applauding the Kop at the close of the game, joined in with the clapping to the tune. Finally all the permutations can be put to bed and European hopes can be rested until February by which time Liverpool will hope to still be in fierce competition for 3 trophies.