Liverpool back in Europe
Liverpool overcome nerves to beat Boro for fourth spot and qualify for the Champions League
|(Georginio Wijnaldum 45+1, Philippe Coutinho 51, Adam Lallana 56)|
England's most successful club in Europe are back in Europe.
Liverpool saw off first-half butterflies to sting like bees and defeat Middlesbrough 3-0 last night.
The top four before kick-off all retained their positions as the curtain came down on the English Premier League season.
Whether the curtain now comes down on Arsene Wenger's career after the FA Cup final remains to be seen.
Arsenal finished fifth.
Wenger's proud record is over. He doesn't win his so-called "fourth-placed trophy" this time. Even the Gunners get nothing for fifth.
For most of the first half, however, Arsenal harboured distant dreams of leapfrogging the leggy lads in Liverpool.
For a full 45 minutes, nothing went to plan at Anfield.
The Kop sent the Reds out to their famous battle cry: You'll Never Walk Alone.
But for most of the first half, they did.
Liverpool were a team of jittery individuals masquerading as a composed side with European aspirations.
Between the three sides competing for the last two Champions League spots, Klopp's men had the most to lose and they played that way.
Manchester City, sitting pretty in third position, treated Watford as target practice, knocking in four before half-time and confirming their easier route to the Champions League group stages.
City eventually prevailed 5-0.
As rank outsiders, the Gunners faced the least pressure. Not expected to sneak into fourth spot, Arsenal went 2-0 up and a man down against Everton. Laurent Koscielny lost his head and Arsene Wenger lost his key centre back for the FA Cup final.
Arsenal eventually prevailed 3-1.
But Liverpool were at risk of losing the plot at home to Middlesbrough.
As the goals piled up in all the wrong places, news filtered through the Anfield terraces.
Rivals were winning. Tension was mounting. The Reds were falling out of the top four.
Nerves handicapped Liverpool's play in the first half. They attacked as if wading through treacle, running in slow motion.
Boro fell back, eager to leave the Premier League with their pride intact. There was no shame in playing with six at the back. The onus was on Liverpool to thread the needle and re-join Europe's patchwork of elite talents.
Emre Can, Philippe Coutinho, Adam Lallana and Roberto Firmino all opted for shots from distance, each less threatening than the one before.
On the touchline, Klopp's bulging neck veins displayed a pulse missing from the contest.
His half-time talk threatened to be a real headache.
And then, in stoppage time, Liverpool relied on muscle memory to recall those flickering images of Klopp's counter-attacking masterplan to break the deadlock.
Along the right flank, Georginio Wijnaldum fed Firmino, who reciprocated with a delightful flick round the corner.
Wijnaldum collected, raced into the box and found that sweet spot between boot laces and ball to smash a comic-book screamer past Brad Guzan.
Suddenly, Arsenal and City's leads no longer mattered. Suddenly, Anfield was a brighter place.
The party began in earnest. Cue the fireworks.
Coutinho, a sublime artist who thoroughly deserves a European canvas next season, curled a rocket into the far corner in the 51st minute.
His free-kick, from a full 25 metres, left Guzan grasping at thin air.
Lallana rolled in a third just five minutes later and Anfield raised the roof.
An occasion that began with all the atmosphere of a morgue ended like a homecoming of sorts.
Their tally of five European wins remains a tremendous source of pride around the city and, rightly so.
Liverpool belong in the Champions League. The Reds are returning to their spiritual home.