In the end it took just one pure strike of a football to change a game, a season and, who knows, maybe a future. It came from the right foot of Georginio Wijnaldum and it almost took the roof off the net at the Kop End.
Deep in stoppage time at the end of the first half and this was threatening to turn in to one of those sapping, frustrating and ultimately highly damaging Anfield afternoons that we have seen far too many of in recent weeks.
Middlesbrough were camped in their own half, essentially playing six across the back when they didn’t have the ball, and Liverpool could not find a way through.
Liverpool have booked their place in next season’s Champions League after an emphatic win over Middlesbrough at Anfield
Adam Lallana keeps his composure to slot home Liverpool’s third goal after Middlesbrough failed to clear their lines
Klopp passionately punches the air in front of adoring Liverpool fans as Anfield becomes a cauldron of noise
The former Southampton man flashes a huge grin while his team-mates pile in around him to celebrate the goal
With the ghosts of recent failures here against Southampton and Crystal Palace seemingly lurking round every corner, Jurgen Klopp’s players looked inhibited and anxious. In the stands, they checked their phones grimly.
Arsenal winning, Manchester City winning, Liverpool out of the Champions League places.
So when Nathaniel Clyne and Roberto Firmino combined with rare fluency down the right hand side, Liverpool supporters will have looked on more in hope than in expectation. Wijnaldum was clear on goal but the angle was tight and the Dutchman had, up until that point, not had a particularly good game.
MATCH FACTS, RATINGS, TABLE AND MATCH ZONE
LIVERPOOL (4-1-3-2): Mignolet 6; Clyne 6.5, Matip 6.5, Lovren 6.5, Milner 7 (Moreno 85, 6); Can 7, Wijnaldum 7.5, Coutinho 7.5, Lallana 8, Firmino 7.5 (Lucas 79, 6) Sturridge 6.5 (Origi 82, 6)
Subs not used: Karius, Alexander-Arnold, Klavan, Grujic
Goals: Wijnaldum 45+1, Coutinho 50, Lallana 56
MIDDLESBROUGH (4-1-4-1): Guzan 6.5; Fabio 6.5 (Ayala 72, 6) Chambers 7, Gibson 7, Friend 7, Clayton 6.5, Leadbitter 7, Forshaw 6.5, Downing 6.5, Bamford 6.5, Gestede 6 (Negredo 72, 6)
Subs not used: Dimi,Bernardo, De Roon, Fischer, Stuani
Referee: Martin Atkinson
Team P GD Pts 1 Chelsea 38 52 93 2 Tottenham Hotspur 38 60 86 3 Manchester City 38 41 78 4 Liverpool 38 36 76 5 Arsenal 38 33 75 6 Manchester United 38 25 69 7 Everton 38 18 61 8 Southampton 38 -7 46 9 Bournemouth 38 -12 46 10 West Bromwich Albion 38 -8 45 11 West Ham United 38 -17 45 12 Leicester City 38 -15 44 13 Stoke City 38 -15 44 14 Crystal Palace 38 -13 41 15 Swansea City 38 -25 41 16 Burnley 38 -16 40 17 Watford 38 -28 40 18 Hull City 38 -43 34 19 Middlesbrough 38 -26 28 20 Sunderland 38 -40 24
How Liverpool opened the scoring through Gini Wijnaldum at Anfield.
It looked at first as though he may look to pass inside. That would have been the easy option, the safe option.
But when the stakes are high sometimes it takes a little courage to get things done and so it was that Wiljnaldum placed his faith in his own technique and tore a rising shot up beyond Brad Guzan in the Middlesbrough goal.
It was a magical moment, a moment that a stadium felt fear lift from its shoulders. It didn’t win the game on its own but it changed the game.
It gave Liverpool the confidence and, more importantly, the space to take Middlesbrough apart in the second half. Liverpool scored two more goals but could have scored a few more as they finally grabbed the fourth placed Premier League finish that was the minimum requirement at the start of Klopp’s first full season.
Daniel Sturridge took to the pitch at the full-time whistle to applaud the supporters and take photographs
Club stalwart Lucas Leiva entered the action late on as a replacement for Roberto Firmino, in what could be his last game
Philippe Coutinho curls in a sublime, long-distance free-kick which beats the wall with ease and nestles in the bottom corner
The wall parts as the Coutinho’s effort slips through and makes its way towards Brad Guzan’s goal
The Brazilian ace speeds off in celebration while defender Dejan Lovren hurries to join him, relief etched across his face
Emre Can hoists the diminutive Coutinho aloft after his strike gave the Reds a comfortable lead in the tie
A trademark point to the heavens caps off Coutinho’s celebrations as Liverpool regroup for the restart after the goal
A place in the Champions League changes everything for this club. Liverpool still have a qualifier to negotiate but the prospect of a place in European football’s Blue Riband competition will help them buy players and indeed keep players. It makes Liverpool more attractive and it lends them a bit of financial clout, too.
So this was a very big win for Liverpool on a day when the prospect of failure must have stalked them. Before the game James Milner said his team-mates were relaxed and confident. But before Wijanldum’s goal, they didn’t look it and it must be said that they benefited from a huge call by referee Martin Atkinson midway through a first half in which they found fluency and potency hard to come by.
Liverpool had enjoyed almost all the possession but Middlesbrough’s blanket defence was holding them at arm’s length. And when a rare break by the visitors in the 24th minute suddenly found Patrick Bamford in a yard of space behind Dejan Lovren the whole game hung in the balance.
Lovren definitely clipped Bamford’s ankles, causing the Middlesbrough forward to crash to earth. It looked like a foul at the time and replays only hardened that view. Had Atkinson given the penalty then he would have had little choice but to send Lovren off, too.
Georginio Wijnaldum thunders an effort into the top corner of the Middlesbrough goal to give the Reds a half-time lead
The Dutchman races off in celebration as team-mate Nathaniel Clyne races behind to join
Wijnaldum lets out a roar after smashing home a top corner effort in front of the Kop just before half-time
Dejan Lovren sparks mass appeals from the away section after bringing down Patrick Bamford in the penalty area
Referee Martin Atkinson firmly waves away any suggestion of a penalty and sees play resume with Liverpool in possession
But it appeared the referee may have had his view impaired by retreating Liverpool defender Joel Matip so he waved play on, judging the incident to have been what they like to call ‘a coming together’. On a day when Liverpool were always going to need the odd moment of fortune, this was perhaps the biggest one of all.
Later on, the second half passed by like a procession. Once they were behind, Middlesbrough were effectively spent. It seemed as though they had to come to Liverpool with just one game plan and once that was gone they seemed short of an alternative.
Liverpool took them apart after the break. They played the kind of fluent, intelligent football that bewitched us in the opening half of the season and all of a sudden chances began to arrive like trains rolling in to a station.
Phillipe Coutinho scored goal number two with a free-kick that Guzan may have saved in the 50th minute and then, six minutes later, Adam Lallana finished off a move that typified everything that is good about this team.
Striker Daniel Sturridge gestures for some treatment after going down under a hard challenge in the opening moments
Emre Can and Calum Chambers battle for an aerial ball during the early stages of the tie as a packed Anfield watches on
Brazilian striker Roberto Firmino tenses up as he prepares to unleash a long-distance shot in the first half
Can and Wijnaldum apply pressure on Middlesbrough men Adam Forshaw in a bid to shut down the midfield
Club legend Steven Gerrard is followed by the cameras as he makes his way up into the terraces to watch the action
Banners on the Kop display the backing and trust Liverpool supporters give to their German manager
A quick break following a Middlesbrough corner seemed to break down when Fabio intercepted Lallana’s cross. But the England international was alert enough to win the loose ball and when it was headed back towards Daniel Sturridge by Wilnaldum, the striker let it run across his body for Lallana to close in and score from 12 yards.
It was a goal created by energy, purpose, desire and selflessness. There was more of that to come, too, as Liverpool enjoyed the freedom of a final half an hour played without any of the pressure that had inhibited them so much prior to Wijnaldum’s goal.
There were no more goals but it didn’t matter. Since the scoreless draw with Southampton that looked so damaging two weeks ago, Liverpool have scored seven without reply. As such, they are in the Champions League on merit.
John W Henry (right) and the fellow members of the FSG board take their place in the main stand ahead of the season finale
The stands inside the famous stadium were soon awash with flags, banners and colour as kick-off approached
Klopp studies his team and the opposition intensely during the warm-up preparations as Anfield slowly fills up