Liverpool halts Napoli to provide Champions League warning

LIVERPOOL, England (AP) — Not for the first time, the Champions League is proving a haven for Liverpool.

A 2-0 win against Napoli on Tuesday ended the Italians’ unbeaten start to the season and served as a reminder of what Jurgen Klopp’s team is still capable of.

After back-to-back losses in the Premier League against relegation-fighting Nottingham Forest and Leeds, Liverpool did what no other team has been capable of by inflicting defeat on Napoli.

Late goals from Mo Salah and Darwin Nunez decided a match that was short on entertainment or chances.

And it was a result that was of little consequence to the group standings, with both teams assured of qualification to the round of 16 before kick off and Napoli still progressing as Group A winners.

But that will be of no concern to Klopp, who is looking to boost the confidence of his players wherever he can, such has been Liverpool’s inconsistency this term.

In that sense it will take more than one win to dispel the doubts surrounding his team. Especially coming in the Champions League – a competition that has so often provided form-defying performances from a club that has won it on six occasions and reached the final in three of the last five seasons under Klopp.

Such have been Liverpool’s troubles this season that Klopp was pushed to declare on the eve of this match that he was not in need of a break.

The German has faced increasing questions over whether he has taken the team as far as he can following the departure of Sadio Mane, while key players appear to have passed their peak.

Yet this is still a team that beat Manchester City last month and has won five out of six in the group stage of the Champions League.

Victory halted a Napoli team that has been the big story in Europe this season, with the Italian league leader’s 4-1 rout of Liverpool in September a calling card of a performance against one of Europe’s true elite.

Liverpool had been flattered by that result, which could have been even more humiliating.

Napoli's ascent has come with a swaggering brand of soccer under head coach Luciano Spalletti.

This game represented another opportunity for the team to confirm its emergence as a major contender for the Champions League.

But the visitors were largely subdued, rarely threatening in a first half that befitted a game with so little at stake.

Curtis Jones lifted one early close-range effort over the bar from a tight angle for Liverpool, while Thiago Alcantara forced Napoli goalkeeper Alex Meret into a save with a shot from just inside the box.

The deadlock looked to have been broken early in the second half when Leo Ostigard headed in Khvicha Kvaratskhelia’s cross, only for it to be ruled out for offside after a lengthy VAR check.

That moment at least livened up the crowd and Napoli improved as an attacking force, with Kvaratskhelia presented with a chance to score, only to misconnect with a volley that bobbled tamely towards Alisson.

As the game drifted toward what appeared to be a stalemate Salah stabbed an effort straight at Meret from inside the box.

It proved to be a warning of what was to come, with Salah forcing the ball over the line in the 85th after a goalmouth scramble.

As Napoli went in search of an equalizer, space opened up for Liverpool to exploit and deep into injury time Nunez poked in a second that was eventually given after a VAR check.

No one will want to face either of these teams in the knockout stage.

Napoli, because it has proven itself one of the most fearsome forces in Europe this season.

Liverpool, because where Europe is concerned anything seems possible.

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James Robson is at https://twitter.com/jamesalanrobson

James Robson, The Associated Press