Liverpool and Tottenham endured anxious nights, but both made it through to the last 16 of the Champions League on the final matchday of Groups A-D. Mohamed Salah’s goal was enough for Liverpool to beat Napoli 1-0, while a Lucas Moura strike five minutes from time at Barcelona took Tottenham into the knockout phase by matching Inter Milan's result vs. PSV.
Liverpool had to beat Napoli, either 1-0, or by two or more goals if Napoli scored. It should, in truth, have won more easily but survived a nervy final few minutes to go through as the group's second-place finisher. Paris Saint-Germain topped the table a comfortable 4-1 win at Red Star Belgrade, pulling away after the hosts had made it a one-goal game in the second half.
Tottenham had to get at least as good as result away to Barcelona as Inter managed at home to PSV, and although it fell behind early to an Ousmane Dembele goal, its hopes were kept alive by Hirving Lozano’s goal for the Dutch champions. Mauro Icardo levelled in that match, but so, eventually, did Lucas in Tottenham's.
Elsewhere in the matches of less dire consequence, Raphael Guerreiro scored twice as Borussia Dortmund claimed the top spot in Group A with a 2-0 win at Thierry Henry’s Monaco, while Atletico Madrid, the runner-up, drew 0-0 with Club Brugge, held scoreless by U.S. goalkeeper Ethan Horvath.
Only one issue remained to be decided in Group D, where Galatasaray claimed the Europa League slot despite losing 3-2 at home to Porto thanks to Lokomotiv Moscow’s 1-0 defeat away to Schalke. Porto had already secured the top spot in the group and will be joined by Schalke in the last 16.
Here are three thoughts on a tense day across the Champions League:
Salah the savior again
Salah had largely been kept quiet by Kalidou Koulibaly, and, with Liverpool’s crossing poor, there was a growing sense of frustration about Anfield. That is, until the 34th minute, when Salah rolled off Mario Rui, received a pass from James Milner and, with acceleration room at last, shimmied past Koulibaly before slipping a smart finish through the legs of David Ospina as the goalkeeper anticipated a cross. It was a brilliant, opportunistic strike, his ninth goal in nine Champions League appearances at Anfield and it transformed the complexion of the game. And to think that just a few weeks ago, his form was so indifferent people were beginning to wonder whether last season was a freak.
Yet for all that Liverpool dominated for the hour that remained, Liverpool spurned chance after chance. There were saves, there were blocks, there were poor finishes (especially by Sadio Mane), there were slightly misplaced final balls and Salah hit the outside of the post. The result was that, although Liverpool played with a pace and intensity that recalled its best performances last season, it couldn’t quite finish Napoli off.
One goal would have saved Carlo Ancelotti’s side, and in the final seconds it seemed certain to arrive as a cross evaded everybody to fall at the feet of substitute forward Arkardiusz Milik, some 10 yards out. But Alisson was out quickly to make the block, and Liverpool survived to go through.
Napoli falters at the last hurdle
There has been much to admire about Napoli in the group stage of the Champions League this season, and in terms of performances the drop-off many had anticipated after the departure of Maurizio Sarri and Jorginho in the summer had not materialized. Until Tuesday. Liverpool’s bizarre inability to score despite having 22 shots meant Napoli was still in it at the end, but the truth is that Liverpool could easily have won by three or four.
Napoli, reluctant to press Liverpool and determined to play out form the back despite the way it kept being caught in possession, was simply blown away–yet again, a Serie A side was unable to live with the fury of a Premier League pressing with full intensity.
Yet for all that, the crucial dropped points, though, were probably less those lost here than the four dropped against PSG in two draws. In both of them, especially at the San Paolo, Napoli had its chances to win but both games were drawn. At the key moments, chances weren’t taken, and it is that small margin that has cast Napoli into the Europa League.
Tottenham climbs a mountain of its own creation
Tottenham has made it difficult for itself in the Champions League, but it goes through thanks Lucas's late goal. The Brazilian’s form this season, after a slow first six months in England, has been super, but this was a generally excellent display. Tottenham, following a slightly stuttering start to the season, is in top gear now.
Tottenham’s hopes must have been raised by its opponent’s team sheet, which featured a raft of changes, the most notable being the omission of Lionel Messi, who was relegated to the bench with Barcelona already guaranteed of top position in the group. Within seven minutes, though, Spurs were behind. Ousmane Dembele’s pace was devastating, but it was a mistake from Kyle Walker-Peters that gifted him possession–Tottenham, yet again in the Champions League this season, the author of its own problems.
As news came though that PSV was leading at the San Siro, it seemed Tottenham might not have to win, but when Icardi leveled after 73 minutes, Spurs had to score. Previous Tottenhams might have faded, but this one did not–and with five minutes remaining it found the vital goal, Lucas running on to Harry Kane’s pass.
It was no less than Tottenham deserved. After carelessly dropping points and displaying sloppiness in drawing at PSV and losing at Inter, this was a different level of away performance. The passing was crisp, the movement good and, while chances were missed, in the end Spurs had enough character to find the vital goal even after Messi had come on.