Liverpool turn to Salah to summon Gerrard’s spirit for Napoli showdown
Liverpool must again rely on fortress Anfield to inflict Napoli’s first Champions League defeat of the season if they are to avoid the disappointment of a group stage exit just over six months since appearing in last season’s final.
The five-time European champions will most likely even have to win by two goals if they concede due to Napoli’s 1-0 triumph when the sides last met in September.
Yet, such a scenario is nothing new for Liverpool and even rekindles fond memories of similar permutations when they hosted Olympiakos in the final Champions League group game of the 2004/05 season.
Brazilian legend Rivaldo’s early free-kick left the hosts needing three goals, which they got in dramatic fashion in the second half as Steven Gerrard’s spectacular strike sealed a famous 3-1 win four minutes from time.
Inspired by Gerrard, the Reds went on to win their last Champions League title that season with a far inferior squad to the one that is off to a club record unbeaten start and top of the Premier League after 16 games.
Overcome the huge challenge facing them in midweek and Liverpool will again be among the favourites to lift the Champions League in Madrid next June.
However, in stark contrast to their consistency in the Premier League, Jurgen Klopp’s men have lost three of their five European encounters in Group C to put their chances of reaching the last 16 in serious peril.
There is some comfort for Klopp that all three defeats came on the road to Napoli, Red Star Belgrade and Paris Saint-Germain, while Liverpool haven’t lost in 18 European games at Anfield.
The German coach also isn’t as reliant on an individual figure for inspiration as Rafael Benitez’s vintage 14 years ago were on Gerrard.
The signings of centre-back Virgil van Dijk and goalkeeper Alisson Becker over the past year have drastically improved Liverpool’s defensive record.
‘Back to his best’
But the focus will be on Mohamed Salah to produce the goods up front after looking more like the player that scored 44 goals in his debut campaign at Anfield with a hat-trick in a 4-0 win at Bournemouth on Saturday.
Liverpool rode the free-scoring form of Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane, who each scored 10 Champions League goals, to reach last season’s final.
Salah’s weekend treble took his tally for the season to 12, but the Egyptian’s only two goals in the Champions League came in a routine 4-0 win over Red Star in October.
“(He was) back to his best, he has been really good this season. He has probably been a bit frustrated with himself but that just shows you the high standards he has got,” insisted Liverpool left-back Andy Robertson after Salah’s magical display on England’s south coast.
“Whatever you do in a football game, you need someone to finish it off,” added Klopp.
“What Mo did around his two goals in the second half was just exceptional. I don’t know at the moment a lot of players who would have scored these two goals.”
Against a Napoli side that has only failed to score in three games this season, Liverpool may well need another two or more from Salah or another source to avoid a big European night at Anfield falling flat.