Jürgen Klopp described the end of the season as though it were a beginning for Liverpool. A place in the Champions League play-offs was secured with nerves, guile and ultimately some comfort against Middlesbrough as Klopp’s first full season at Anfield finished with a merited place in the top four. It bodes well for the club that the manager immediately wanted more.
“Liverpool needs to be there consistently,” Klopp said of the Champions League proper. “In the last 10 years Liverpool was not a part of it too often. We should do everything to change this.”
August, when the five-times European Cup winners will be seeded for the play-off draw, will provide the first opportunity. Having exhilarated at times this season, dug in when required and rediscovered their clinical touch on home soil on the final day, a ticket to the Champions League represents deserved reward for Liverpool’s varying qualities and a campaign of genuine progress under the former Borussia Dortmund coach.
Three goals in 11 minutes either side of half-time gave Klopp’s team the victory needed to guarantee a top four finish. Georginio Wijnaldum ignited Anfield with the crucial breakthrough before Philippe Coutinho and Adam Lallana put the game beyond Steve Agnew’s relegated side, who caused frequent problems to Dejan Lovren and the Liverpool defence before half-time before being swatted aside.
The Liverpool manager had claimed beforehand that he would not have settled for a Champions League decider on the final day at the start of the season as he dreams of “the biggest things”. But it provides firm evidence of Liverpool’s progress under his management that the European elite beckons for only the second time in eight years. Klopp will fly with the Liverpool squad to Sydney on Monday for a lucrative post-season friendly. Australia welcomes a club who are now a far more attractive proposition to potential signings.
Lucas Leiva gave what sounded suspiciously like a farewell address after the final whistle while Daniel Sturridge, another player who may depart this summer, posed for photographs with family members in front of the Kop during the squad’s lap of honour. Otherwise, Liverpool are likely to be strengthened significantly by the time they next appear at Anfield.
Wijnaldum’s sixth league goal of the season released a tension that had been rising throughout the first half in the stands and had begun to effect Liverpool’s performance on the pitch. Klopp’s team dominated possession from the start, forcing Middlesbrough’s formation to morph into a 6-3-1 and a test of Liverpool’s patience against another deep defence, in which Ben Gibson again impressed. But a lack of composure on the ball and penetration generated audible and increasing groans around Anfield until one strike in first-half stoppage time changed the atmosphere and the context of Liverpool’s campaign completely.
Liverpool, with Coutinho dictating proceedings back in central midfield, should have started an ultimately comfortable passage into the Champions League with their first meaningful attack. James Milner’s cross fell to Nathaniel Clyne of all people and, although the two full-backs’ adventure underlined Klopp’s intent, the defender dragged an inviting chance horribly wide. Emre Can, Coutinho and Sturridge all went close before, with the home performance deteriorating, one moment of quality changed everything.
A perfectly weighted flick from Roberto Firmino sent Wijnaldum sprinting between Gibson and George Friend into the penalty area. The Dutch international, who had instigated the move, opted for power and beat Brad Guzan at his near post with a blistering finish into the Kop goal. Liverpool regained fourth place from Arsenal with the midfielder’s fine finish and Champions League qualification was never in doubt thereafter.
It could, arguably should, have been a more complicated equation for Klopp’s team, however. Lovren endured a nerve-stricken afternoon and appeared to have conceded a penalty and invited a red card when he tangled with Patrick Bamford in the 22nd minute. Bamford was clean through on goal after exchanging passes with Adam Forshaw when he went to ground under pressure from Lovren. The Liverpool defender’s arm did make contact but referee Martin Atkinson, perhaps swayed by the ease with which Bamford collapsed, waved play on. The Middlesbrough bench were incandescent at Liverpool’s reprieve.
“I thought it was a definite penalty,” Agnew said. “Patrick was the wrong side of the defender and I thought it was a definite penalty.” Even Klopp, while repeating his argument that many decisions have gone against Liverpool this season, admitted: “Maybe it was a penalty but I haven’t seen it again.”
After the high anxiety of the first half, the second was a procession into the Champions League for Liverpool. Coutinho swept a trademark free-kick over the Boro wall and beyond an unconvincing Guzan dive into the bottom corner within six minutes of the restart. Shortly afterwards, on a counter-attack from a Middlesbrough corner, Lallana made it three with a comfortable finish. Lallana led the break but his attempted cross for Sturridge was intercepted by Fabio Da Silva. Wijnaldum and Sturridge regained possession to play the midfielder in behind the visiting defence and he tucked the ball into the bottom corner with ease. Job done.
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