Football: Liverpool seal fourth spot

Liverpool midfielder Georginio Wijnaldum roaring in delight as he is mobbed by team-mates upon scoring the Reds' opening goal against Middlesbrough.
Liverpool midfielder Georginio Wijnaldum roaring in delight as he is mobbed by team-mates upon scoring the Reds' opening goal against Middlesbrough.PHOTO: REUTERS

They earn Champions League berth for the first time since 2014 after easing past Boro

ENGLISH PREMIER LEAGUE

Liverpool 3

Middlesbrough 0

The history books show that Liverpool have been champions of Europe five times.

In that context, qualifying for the continent's premier club competition may not sound much of an achievement, but it brought relief and joy in equal measure at Anfield.

Liverpool had finished in the top four only once in seven seasons. Jurgen Klopp has changed that. His side enter August's Champions League play-offs. They secured fourth spot.

Georginio Wijnaldum, Philippe Coutinho and Adam Lallana saw off Middlesbrough with a flurry of three goals in 11 minutes, but that told only part of the story.

When Arsenal and Manchester City went ahead first with one and then two goals elsewhere, pressure was applied. Liverpool have a propensity to struggle against the lesser lights.

They had not won in their three previous games at Anfield. They were laboured and uninspired. Anfield, a sea of flags and a wall of noise before kick-off, seemed a tense place.

NO ORDINARY CLUB

We are Liverpool. We have to deliver. We did it again. We have to improve and we will but for now, today, it is a big relief.

JURGEN KLOPP, Liverpool manager, on qualifying for the Champions League.

Then the floodgates were wrenched open by Wijnaldum, anxiety was eased and Klopp's first full season in England could be bracketed as a success.

Liverpool have done it Klopp's way, deploying inimitable tactics in an encouraging season with the manager's stamp all over it.

Part of a side relegated to the Championship 12 months ago, Wijnaldum propelled Liverpool towards the Champions League. His time at Newcastle may have made him an unlikely signing for a club of Liverpool's ambitions but Klopp rarely takes the obvious path and he has been rewarded for bringing in the Dutchman.

Wijnaldum accelerated on to a pass from Roberto Firmino and rifled a shot past Brad Guzan. It came from the sort of quick combination play - involving the eventual scorer and Nathaniel Clyne - that Liverpool had struggled to produce before then. It proved catalytic.

Coutinho's seventh goal in nine games was a dipping free kick; it was also his third in two games since Klopp relocated him to a deeper role in a midfield diamond.

Then Lallana, an emblematic figure in their autumn excellence but who had not scored this year, ended a personal drought when he latched on to Wijnaldum's header.

By then, the vast majority at Anfield were confident enough to celebrate. An ultra-defensive Middlesbrough side were already relegated and selected with the Championship in mind.

They are the lowest scorers in all four divisions. A side with two away goals in 2017 were unlikely to score three at Anfield, despite an erratic display by Dejan Lovren.

The centre-back was reprieved after a quarter of the game when he appeared to bundle Patrick Bamford over in the penalty area.

Referee Martin Atkinson ignored Middlesbrough's appeals, thus sparing himself the decision of whether to send Lovren off.

Liverpool made the most of the let-off. They are Champions League bound.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 22, 2017, with the headline 'Reds seal fourth spot'. Print Edition | Subscribe