Liverpool’s Brazilian midfielder Philippe Coutinho (L) celebrates scoring his team’s second goal during the English Premier League football match between Liverpool and Middlesbrough at Anfield in Liverpool, north west England on May 21, 2017. Paul ELLIS / AFP
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 top four.
Going into the last round of fixtures, third and fourth place were both still up for grabs with third place the most sought after spot because that position allows a club direct qualification for the Champions League group stages.
But Liverpool will be more than happy to settle for fourth in Jurgen Klopp’s first full season at the club.
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 fans at Anfield to finally breathe easily.
Liverpool went into this contest knowing that they have struggled at home recently, picking up just two points from their previous three home games.
Anfield, then, was understandably nervy about whether or not they could get the job done – but at least they were playing a visiting team that have been woeful this season.
Middlesbrough, relegated a fortnight ago after a 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.
Liverpool threw themselves into this match, perhaps conscious that they have been too sluggish too often in the opening stages of games recently.
Liverpool 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 on the occasion 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 even further after 56 minutes, skipping through Boro’s static defence to slot past Guzan and confirm Liverpool’s Champions League participation.
The hosts took their foot off the gas in the final half hour as they basked in the Kop’s adulation after securing just a second top-four finish in the past eight seasons.