Dries Mertens scored twice as Napoli comfortably saw off Red Star Belgrade 3-1 on Wednesday, but the Italian side will have to wait to book its place in the Champions League knockout stage.
Marek Hamsik netted Napoli’s other goal, while Ben Nabouhane pulled a late goal back for Red Star. However, Carlo Ancelotti’s side still needs a point against Liverpool in the final round of group fixtures to guarantee advancement after Paris Saint-Germain beat the English 2-1 in the other Group C match.
“This team gives me great emotions, this group tested us and I am convinced that we can compete against anyone in Europe,” Ancelotti said. “We can’t go to Liverpool thinking about the math, we have to go there and play like we deserve to be top of a very difficult group, with courage.
“At the end of the day, it’s such a difficult and balanced group that it couldn’t be decided with a match remaining.”
Napoli tops the group with nine points, one more than PSG and three more than Liverpool.
Red Star beat Liverpool at home in the previous round of games and also drew with Napoli in the first meeting between the two sides. But its away form has been dismal, having lost 6-1 at PSG and 4-0 in England.
“Liverpool is a tough team, but we can fight for it, it will be a great match,” Hamsik said. “Of course there’s still regret that we drew in Belgrade but no-one thought we could be top of the group at this stage.”
Napoli almost took the lead in the fifth minute but visiting goalkeeper Milan Borjan did well to parry Mertens’ backheel flick from close range.
The hosts did go in front six minutes later when a corner was flicked on for Hamsik to volley in his first goal of the season.
Red Star came close to equalizing in the 23rd minute but Napoli goalkeeper David Ospina — who had received treatment in the opening minutes for a knee injury — pushed away Veljko Simic’s fairly tame effort.
Mertens doubled Napoli’s lead in the 33rd, prodding home Fabian Ruiz’s deflected cross from the left.
Napoli’s two scorers combined shortly after the break to extend their side’s advantage with Mertens running onto Hamsik’s ball over the top and lifting it over Borjan and into the top left corner.
However, Napoli got complacent and allowed Red Star to get one back five minutes later. Marko Marin threaded the ball through for Nabouhane to curl into the bottom left corner.
“In the first half we didn’t play like we wanted to but after the break we had our best 45 minutes in this Champions League,” Red Star coach Vladan Milojevic said. “I have to compliment the guys, we have a really young team which is doing well.
“We conceded six goals in Paris and I don’t have to say anything to my players to motivate them. We will be playing in a full stadium and I am sure we will give our maximum even though we have already been eliminated.”