Liverpool have qualified for the Champions League for only the second time in the last seven years, with goals from Gini Wijnaldum, Philippe Coutinho and Adam Lallana ensuring a comfortable victory over already-relegated Middlesbrough.
Anfield was noisy and expectant from the start, with the home side knowing a win would guarantee fourth spot. Aspirations of coming third were quickly quashed when Manchester City were 4-0 to the good at half-time, but had you offered any Liverpool fan fourth at the outset, they would have taken it.
Right from the off, Middlesbrough settled into defensive mode, leaving only Rudy Gestede upfield, and everyone else behind the ball. The reason Liverpool had not already qualified for the Champions League this season was struggles against these sorts of teams, but today the outcome was resounding. Liverpool were never going to let anyone get in their way at this stage.
A quick start, too often absent this season at Anfield from Liverpool, saw Roberto Firmino, who passed a late fitness test to start the game, and Philippe Coutinho, playing as one of the central midfielders, heavily involved.
The Brazilians, along with Adam Lallana, created a few chances, but Brad Guzan in goal only had simple saves to make early on.
On 18 minutes, Stewart Downing hit the wall with a free-kick after a James Milner foul. Liverpool broke away and Firmino and Emre Can had shots at the other end in quick succession, but neither went in. Apart from the Downing effort, it was one-way traffic.
Referee Martin Atkinson was the centre of attention come 23 minutes, as Patrick Bamford latched on to a through ball. Dejan Lovren appeared to haul him down, but nothing was given. Atkinson would have had to have reduced a red card had he given a penalty, and he presumably felt there was little contact.
Daniel Sturridge, in potentially his final game for the club, went close with a left-footed effort coming in off the right-hand side, whilst Coutinho continued to be massively involved.
It was Roberto Firmino, however, who created the first goal. In the perfect instance, just before the interval, he flicked a ball into the path of Gini Wijnaldum, who leathered a shot into the roof of the net. The Dutchman took no chances with the power on his effort, and it accurately fired past Guzan to break the deadlock.
On the balance of play, it was completely deserved, but the main feeling come half-time was relief that the goal had come.
Liverpool came out for the second half knowing that another quick goal would kill the game. The match meant nothing to Boro, and they would not mount too big a fight-back from 2-0 down.
Daniel Sturridge came inside as he often does off the right, and drew a foul from Adam Clayton. When Coutinho stepped up to take the kick, the outcome was never in doubt. The ball went into the far corner, and Guzan was stranded.
A goal for Coutinho was nothing less than he deserved, having ran the show thus far. A midfield berth surely beckons for him in the long-term.
By 56 minutes, the game was put beyond any doubt. Adam Lallana broke after a Middlesbrough corner, and the ball was eventually given back to him by Wijnaldum. The Englishman passed the ball into the corner, and the result was finalised.
3-0 did not flatter the Reds. It could easily have been more.
Middlesbrough responded quite well, and Simon Mignolet had to make a good save immediately after the restart when Adam Forshaw went through on goal, but they mustered little else after that.
With the freedom of being 3-0 up, Firmino, Coutinho, Lallana and Wijnaldum were moving the ball all over the pitch, toying with the visitors, with Sturridge sporadically involved in moves too. Chances came and went, but Liverpool were playing in first gear by now, content with what they had.
Both the crowd and the players knew the job was complete, and the celebrations had already begun by 70 minutes.
Lucas came on for the final eleven minutes of normal time, and was greeted by shouts of “shoot” every time he went near the ball. This could well have been his final appearance after ten years on Merseyside, and he simply enjoyed himself.
The final ten minutes was all about waving off potential departures. First Divock Origi replaced Sturridge, who might yet be retained, before James Milner gave way for Alberto Moreno. The Spaniard certainly will not be seen in Liverpool red again.
Xabi Alonso, who retired yesterday, was also honoured with his song breaking out on occasion too.
Laughs came from the stands whenever Lucas was urged to shoot, whilst Alberto Moreno attempted to give himself a lasting memory by getting into a scuffle with Calum Chambers. Amidst the comedic activities on the field, Jurgen Klopp stopped the Kop singing his praises before the final whistle, but really the game was already over.
It was a relative canter into the Champions League in the end, but Liverpool have had a long, hard season to get there.
Champions League football will grace Anfield next season, and Jurgen Klopp and his side can look back on what proved to be a successful campaign in the end. Liverpool Football Club are back dining at the top table; an exciting summer lies ahead.
Simon Mignolet, 7 – made a couple of good saves and came out for a couple of crosses, but in reality had very little to deal with; he has been important in the run-in, but was not really needed today
Nathaniel Clyne, 7 – made a few very good interceptions and tackles but was never really needed defensively against a quiet Stewart Downing
Joel Matip, 7 – classy on the ball and his usual self: cool, calm and collected
Dejan Lovren, 6 – struggled against Rudy Gestede and was fortunate not to give away a penalty, but did just about well enough to keep a clean sheet against a team that don’t really score goals
James Milner, 7 – lacks creativity at times but did everything else admirably and was reliable as ever
Emre Can, 7 – free to move around the pitch given his lack of defensive work, and played some good balls to set attacks off; did as much as he needed to: nothing more and nothing less
Philippe Coutinho, 9 – had more touches than anyone else on the pitch and was central (literally and metaphorically) to everything Liverpool did; scored a fantastic free-kick and seemed to enjoy himself back at top form
Gini Wijnaldum, 8 – scored the vital opening goal on the stroke of half-time and was a creative force coming from the left and right of the midfield diamond
Adam Lallana, 8 – scored a goal, created chances and played at his usual level; had a relatively quiet first period, but even then was involved sporadically, and grew into the game more in the second half
Roberto Firmino, 8 – unfortunate not to have scored; brilliantly assisted the first goal and displayed a lot of class in the final third
Daniel Sturridge, 7 – had a quieter game than last week, and had only a couple of chances, but linked the play well and was given a standing ovation on what might have been his last appearance in a Liverpool shirt; his biggest contribution this season came last week at West Ham
Lucas (79th minute sub.), 7 – comically urged to shoot at every opportunity (even from his own penalty area) in what might too be his last game for the club; did nothing wrong but the game was finished by the time he arrived, and if it is to be his last game, he has been a great servant to the club
Divock Origi (82th minute sub.), n/a – hardly touched the ball, but did nothing wrong and was not in great form going into the match; it must be remembered he is still only young and developing and there is much more to come from him in future seasons
Alberto Moreno (86th minute sub.), n/a – managed to get into a scuffle with Calum Chambers, but did nothing else; certainly his farewell appearance and showed nothing to suggest that is unjustified
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