Liverpool secured fourth place in the Premier League and a Champions League qualification berth with a 3-0 win over Middlesbrough at Anfield on Sunday.
Knowing victory would make certain of their objective, Jürgen Klopp’s side kept their nerve in the opening period and eventually took the lead through a clinical Georginio Wijnaldum finish.
Buoyed by the breakthrough, a quickfire double after the interval – via a Philippe Coutinho free-kick and Adam Lallana from close range – put the result beyond doubt and ensured fourth position for the Reds.
The key points…
- Wijnaldum blast broke deadlock in first-half stoppage-time
- Coutinho free-kick doubled advantage and Lallana hit a third
- Liverpool finish fourth and will enter 2017-18 Champions League qualifiers
The team news…
When the teamsheets were exchanged ahead of kick-off, Liverpool’s showed one change from last weekend at West Ham United – with Roberto Firmino fit enough to start, in place of Divock Origi up front.
The first half…
The Reds – wearing their resplendent retro-style kit for 2017-18 – set about their task without hesitation, Firmino firing in an early effort and Coutinho slightly misjudging a cross for Daniel Sturridge before the first genuine chance on six minutes.
That fell to Nathaniel Clyne, who was the spare man at the back post when James Milner lofted a cross in from the left. He controlled the ball nicely for a strike but sliced off target to the left.
Klopp’s men were looking to shoot at any presentable opportunity and Emre Can went close with a drive towards the top left corner after stepping around a challenge at the edge of the box.
Moments later, Middlesbrough launched significant appeals for a penalty as Patrick Bamford tried to run onto a forward pass into the box and tumbled under pressure from Dejan Lovren. Referee Martin Atkinson was unmoved, though.
Rudy Gestede flicked a header wide as the visitors grew into the game, before Coutinho and Sturridge took turns to swerve low shots wide of the right post at the Kop end.
As the first half elapsed and Boro’s confidence rose, the north east outfit began to enjoy more possession but remained firmly disciplined defensively, with former Reds winger Stewart Downing dropping deep to create a five-man backline when needed.
For their part, Liverpool had been unable to pick a gap between that defence.
At least until the minute of added time, when Clyne fed a pass to Firmino and the No.11 turned the ball into Wijnaldum’s burst forward. A sublime touch took the Dutchman clean through and his finish was a perfect match, slammed inside the near post.
The second half…
If the wait for a goal in the first half had tested the nerves of the Liverpool supporters, their team did not wait long to remove any anxiety after the interval.
Sturridge drew a foul outside the area with 51 on the clock and Coutinho’s interest immediately piqued.
With the free-kick slightly right of centre, Boro goalkeeper Brad Guzan perhaps expected a curler towards the top right corner but instead the Brazilian swept a low hit in the other direction and found the net.
But the Reds were not finished and within five minutes they bagged a third.
Middlesbrough committed players forward for a set-piece and were caught on the counter-attack, Lallana rushing into space with a group of teammates to his right.
And although the Englishman failed to pick someone out with his dinked delivery, he coolly tucked a finish beyond Guzan and into the bottom right corner when the follow-up was worked back to him inside the box.
The Boro stopper was soon at full stretch to tip away a Coutinho drive across goal as both sides abandoned their shape in a frenzied passage of play that effectively decided the outcome.
But Liverpool re-established their control of the match and had chances to extend their lead – Sturridge notably going close with a sharp crack from 20 yards – as the pace subsided.
The job was already done, though, and 38 games’ worth of hard work concluded with Klopp’s charges in fourth place in the Premier League and a return to the Champions League to look forward to.