‘When you see a finish line you should sprint,” was Jürgen Klopp’s final exhortation to his players before this potentially season-defining final game.
Liverpool were willing to take him at his word – Roberto Firmino landed the first shot on target in a little under 30 seconds – though more than half an hour later they were still shooting and acceleration was beginning to be replaced by apprehension. News from the other games had already filtered through. Arsenal and Manchester City had taken early leads, but though the first half had been a procession towards Brad Guzan’s goal, with Nathaniel Clyne, Emre Can, Philippe Coutinho, Daniel Sturridge and Adam Lallana almost literally queuing up to take pot shots, the Middlesbrough back line was holding out quite comfortably.
Just over five minutes before the break the travelling fans in the Anfield Road end felt emboldened enough to launch a chorus of “Champions League, you’re having a laugh”. Anfield easily found a response to opposition fans who will now be taking a break from the Premier League, but it was half-hearted, you could tell the point had hit home. Liverpool were making ominously heavy weather of breaking down a relegated side who were letting them have plenty of the ball, and though the goal-attempt stats would have been impressive there was nothing particularly sophisticated about the home side’s approach.
Liverpool only seemed to have two plans, either shoot on sight or move the ball to Coutinho, and after a series of crisply hit passes failed to find their targets it began to appear that not even Brazilian inspiration would be enough to end the depressing run of home results that had left Klopp and his players needing a win. Anfield was heading towards one of its quieter, more thoughtful intervals until Georginio Wijnaldum’s excellent goal in first-half stoppage time changed the character of all the half time conversations and lightened the atmosphere at a stroke.
Wijnaldum began the move himself, finding Clyne on the right then moving into the penalty area in the hope of a return pass, which came perfectly to feet courtesy of a neat flick by Firmino. In the blink of an eye Wijnaldum was bearing down on Guzan with only the goalkeeper to beat and he outwitted him decisively at the near post, shooting early before the angle became too narrow to bring a roar from the crowd in which surprise and relief might have been discerned amid the usual delight.
There was only one question to be answered after that, but two quick goals from Coutinho and Lallana at the start of the second half put a stop to any needless worries about Liverpool letting Boro back into the game. By the end it was hard to work out what all the fuss had been about. Liverpool were much better than their opponents, as might be expected of a side heading for the Champions League rather than the Championship, yet all the ostentatious finger-crossing and gestures of prayer taking place on the terraces before kick-off had been real enough. Liverpool had played themselves into this tight spot with a poorly timed run of home performances, though perhaps assisted by knowing exactly what was needed they managed to play themselves out of it.
Arsène Wenger could have had no complaints about Boro’s commitment, though he probably did not feel the need to grumble about Everton’s end-of-season lethargy either, Arsenal beating them 3-1. While Middlesbrough never threatened to replicate the win Crystal Palace achieved here last month it would have been quite odd if they had. Palace were playing for their lives at the time, while Boro had no active interest apart from damage limitation. They did not make it easy for Liverpool, just as they did not lie down at Arsenal or Manchester City in the autumn, but what undoubtedly helped was the timing of this match. Boro came to Anfield knowing points would not help their cause in the slightest, while Liverpool had a whole week in which to prepare for a win or bust game. That was not quite the case when Boro took a point at the Emirates in October, three days after Arsenal had played in the Champions League, or when they held City to a 1-1 draw in November, four days after Barcelona had been beaten at the Etihad Stadium.
The Premier League is more of a marathon than a sprint anyway, but Klopp is correct. When the finishing line is in sight the only response is to go for it. Arsenal and City would most likely have won their home games against Boro in similar circumstances, but when Arsenal played them mid-season they had no idea that two points dropped in a goalless draw would come back to haunt them on the last day. It is not entirely Boro’s fault that Arsenal will miss out on the Champions League for the first time in 20 years, but if Wenger is looking for someone or something to blame, he might consider the fact that alone of the top six, his side failed to manage a goal at home against a side destined to finish second bottom. Liverpool only temporarily looked like doing the same. Once Wijnaldum upped the pace the result was never in doubt.