Liverpool get over the line to take Champions League spot

Sadio Mané netted a double as home side saw off Crystal Palace on the final day

Liverpool’s Sadio Mané scores the opening goal during their Premier League win over Crystal Palace. Photo: Phil Noble/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

Liverpool’s Sadio Mané scores the opening goal during their Premier League win over Crystal Palace. Photo: Phil Noble/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

 

Liverpool 2 Crystal Palace 0

With a minimal of fuss but a monumental effort Liverpool completed their salvage operation to secure Champions League qualification for a fifth successive season.

Sadio Mané, epitomising the recovery that ultimately transported Jürgen Klopp’s team into third place, ended what he had labelled the worst season of his career with two goals that closed Roy Hodgson’s career with Crystal Palace in defeat. Klopp sought out the former Liverpool and England manager as soon as the final whistle sounded. After a warm embrace, the Liverpool manager returned to his dug-out with a series of fist-pumps that underlined what this rescue act meant after a punishing campaign on a professional and personal level.

From staring at the unwanted complications of Europa League qualification in March, Liverpool preserved their place among the European elite with a ten game unbeaten run that yielded 26 points from a possible 30. Last season’s champions finished in championship-winning form, and with Klopp’s conviction strengthened that they will be back to challenge again next season with his injured leaders recovered from injury.

Liverpool were bolstered by the welcome return of 10,000 fans to Anfield, who delivered a powerful rendition of You’ll Never Walk Alone before kick-off, but the start was laced with anxiety for all concerned as Palace opened dangerously. The visitors should have gone ahead long before Klopp’s team settled into their rhythm and Mohamed Salah’s expertly-timed runs began to stretch the Palace defence.

Alisson was forced into two important saves inside the first six minutes. Wilfried Zaha, deployed as a lone striker, was thwarted at the near post by the Liverpool goalkeeper after beating Nat Phillips to the by-line and opting to shoot instead of pulling the ball back for the unmarked Andros Townsend. Having been tripped by Georginio Wijnaldum, who was given a rousing reception ahead of his anticipated Liverpool farewell, Townsend angled the resulting free-kick towards the far top corner only for Alisson to intervene again.

The Palace winger was then involved in the game’s turning point. Seizing on a casual crossfield pass from Trent Alexander-Arnold, Townsend burst through Liverpool’s central defence and found himself one-on-one with the Brazil international. This time Alisson was beaten but Townsend’s low drive sailed past his left hand post. It was a wake-up call that Liverpool heeded.

Palace did not threaten again in the first half as the hosts’ composure on the ball improved and the right sided combinations of Salah, Alexander-Arnold and Thiago Alcântara threatened repeatedly. Alexander-Arnold curled a free-kick over from long range and Salah’s volley deflected wide off Gary Cahill as pressure mounted on Vicente Guaita’s goal. He should have been beaten from the subsequent corner but Rhys Williams, left completely alone in the centre of the penalty area, headed wastefully over.

Salah was then released behind Tyrick Mitchell by Fabinho’s exquisite ball but the Palace keeper stood tall at his near post and denied Liverpool’s leading goalscorer with his chest. A breakthrough felt inevitable and duly arrived when Palace again failed to deal with an Andy Robertson corner from the left. Williams wanted the ball more than Cheikhou Kouyaté and his glancing header struck Roberto Firmino before dropping to Mané, who scooped in from close range as Joel Ward desperately tried to intervene. A scruffy way to unlock the riches of the Champions League, but Liverpool cared not one iota.

It was entirely in keeping with the centre-halves’ tale of Liverpool’s season that both Phillips and Williams needed treatment for bloodied head wounds before half-time. Phillips played on after being bandaged up on the pitch and Williams likewise having made an emergency dash down the tunnel for stitches above his left eye.

Liverpool did not have any central defensive replacements on a substitutes’ bench that featured Jordan Henderson as Klopp sought to involve his captain on the final day after three months out injured. The midfielder’s availability represented better news for England than his club ahead of the Euros, with Gareth Southgate due to announce his 26-man squad on Tuesday.

There was a weariness to Liverpool’s performance after the interval, which was no great surprise given this was their fourth game in 11 days, but their refusal to give Palace any time in possession was striking.

The visitors were offered more hope of an equaliser from Liverpool’s uncertain attempts to play their way out of defence than anything they created themselves, and that hope was extinguished when Mané ended his disappointing season with his second goal of the afternoon.

Salah was sent scampering away down the right once more by Firmino. He cut inside and exchanged passes with Wijnaldum before finding Mané in space on the left of the penalty area. The Senegal international struck low, his effort took a decisive deflection off Cahill and wrong-footed Guaita en route to the bottom corner. Finally, and at the end of a long and troubled road, it was time for Klopp to celebrate a tangible reward. – Guardian

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