Brilliant goals from Georginio Wijnaldum, Philippe Coutinho and Adam Lallana secured Liverpool a spot in next season’s Champions League play-off round after a 3-0 win over relegated Middlesbrough on Sunday.
Due to Chelsea’s dominance this term the final weeks of the season have seen attention switch from who could win the Premier League to which teams might squeeze into the prized top four.
Going into the last round of fixtures, third and fourth place were still up for grabs, but Liverpool held their nerve at Anfield and manager Jurgen Klopp said he was relieved to hold onto fourth spot from Arsenal.
“I could not imagine this morning it would be like this. I couldn’t think it would be really tight until the end,” the German told Sky Sports.
“I am really happy about this. I think people deserve this opportunity for us to be able to qualify for the Champions League.
“I asked for the results at half time and not before, so I had no idea about the Arsenal score.”
Klopp, who guided Borussia Dortmund to the 2013 Champions League final, said a club with the profile of Liverpool needed Champions League football.
“We are Liverpool. We have to deliver,” said Klopp.
“We have to improve and we will, but for now, today, it is a big relief.
“A club like Liverpool needs to be in the Champions League,” added the 49-year-old.
Liverpool made hard work of it early on but when Wijnaldum coolly finished on the stroke of half-time, that was the signal the Reds needed to run riot and further impressive goals from Coutinho and Lallana allowed the home fans to finally breathe easily.
Middlesbrough, relegated a fortnight ago after defeat to Chelsea, opted to start with the muscular Rudy Gestede up front, a player who has caused Liverpool’s defence problems in the past.
Caretaker manager Steve Agnew left their two top scorers, Alvaro Negredo and Martin De Roon, on the bench alongside former Liverpool player Daniel Ayala.
– Nerves –
Liverpool threw themselves into the match, perhaps conscious that they have been too sluggish too often in the opening stages of games recently.
They remained entirely dominant as the first half progressed as Gestede blocked a Roberto Firmino effort inside the penalty area while Emre Can also flashed an effort wide.
Middlesbrough offered little attacking threat although they were unlucky not to get a penalty when Patrick Bamford appeared to be clearly hauled down by Dejan Lovren, but referee Martin Atkinson waved away Boro’s frantic appeals.
After 25 minutes, with Manchester City and Arsenal both winning — and thus finishing third and fourth if results stayed the same — the fans and the players became aware they needed a goal to leapfrog Arsene Wenger’s side back into the Champions League places.
As a result, Klopp’s men became incredibly tense and Liverpool struggled to break down a Middlesbrough defence that looked increasingly solid and confident.
Wijnaldum, though, made all the difference with his first real intervention of the match.
On the stroke of half-time he picked up Firmino’s intelligent through ball on the edge of the area and rifled past a helpless Brad Guzan into the roof of the net.
That lifted the pressure and the volume level increased inside Anfield even further shortly the break when Coutinho threaded home a fine free-kick from 20 yards.
Lallana then twisted the knife, skipping through Boro’s static defence to slot past Guzan and confirm Liverpool’s Champions League participation. – Agence France-Presse