Anfield breathes easy as Wijnaldum sends Reds fourth
Liverpool 3 Middlesbrough 0
There was a feeling of reclaiming lost territory on the final whistle.
"The boys are back in town," was Anfield record of choice, Liverpool believing the Champions League their natural habitat, their exile for seven of the last eight years diminishing self-esteem.
Now - a hazardous play-off game permitting - Jurgen Klopp will restore the club to the European elite. Nobody witnessing the victory that finally took them there could deny it is where this venue belongs, nor the least the team deserves for a campaign which - although erratic in the grey midwinter - yielded 76 points.
They will take their place as an emerging, evolving side rather than one in recovery as they were during their last excursion under Brendan Rodgers in 2014, his team ill-equipped after losing the title and Luis Suarez.
That is what made this final day confirmation so essential but also so perilous. From the moment Klopp walked into Anfield he has witnessed a club and a fanbase in trauma, lamenting so many recent missed opportunities, worrying about further dark clouds at the end of the storm rather than the golden skies of their anthem.
Klopp's two cup final defeats last season added to that fatalism, even though reaching those within six months of taking over should have been asource of promise as obvious despair in defeat. There have been no backward steps in 18 months, but there would have been no comfort in failure here.
"We are not confident enough in general," Klopp admitted. "When something doesn't work it feels something slips through your finger. I am really happy we achieved something we didn't achieve too often in the past. You need to feel the improvement, the next step that it is right."
This institutionalised anxiety needed to be overcome as much as Middlesbrough for Liverpool to secure their fourth spot.
In fact, it was far more a threat than Boro's timid forward line and took only 20 minutes to threaten to reach debilitating levels. Liverpool had started well enough, Middlesbrough were predictably retreating. To every neutral eye it seemed only a matter of time before Klopp's side would score, but The Kop sensed impending doom.
The first wayward pass caused a hum; the next overhit cross a howl; and a succession of snapshots from distance an accusation of wastefulness.
Klopp was starting to focus on the responses of his own crowd as much as the players. Sometimes it can seem to mean too much. By any standard ofmodern calamities, to fail at home to Middlesbrough would have been unbearable.
Last year Liverpool had to defeat Borussia Dortmund, Manchester United, Villarreal and Sevilla if they wanted Champions League football - a bar ultimately set one game too high. Now it came to overcoming an already relegated side. Surely they could not mess this up? They didn't but they still needed a little help.
Middlesbrough were waiting for the mistakes and their caretaker coach Steve Agnew argued the game changed on 22 minutes. Patrick Bamford rushed through and felt Dejan Lovren's hand on his back. It looked a shove. It would have been a penalty and probably a red card.
"A definite pen," said Agnew.
Referee Martin Atkinson said no - a sign, perhaps, the lucky breaks would go the hosts way. They would have to wait for Boro's concentration to dip to take advantage.
Then it came, a minute into injury-time in the first half. Roberto Firmino clipped the ball into Georginio Wijnaldum and while Sturridge waited for the cross for a tap-in the Dutchman opted for the top corner with a thumping finish. There followed an explosion, joy and relief - more the latter from The Kop. A celebration worthy of a European night.
Liverpool could now see their Graceland, and when Philippe Coutinho's trademark free-kick beat Brad Guzan on 52 minute it was time to check passport renewals.
Lallana's run for the party-starting third goal against Middlesbrough offered an irresistible symbol of Liverpool's season - both its flaws and it ultimate success.
It was a blistering start, he appeared to have lost in the middle, but somehow it all worked out well in the end, a thrilling finale ensuring the target was reached. The Champions League planning could begin then.
"We learned a lot in this year about ourselves and we can use it. Usually at the end of the season you are tired but I am already looking forward to it," said Klopp.
"It is the best tournament in Europe. There is nothing better maybe in the world. You want to be there. Liverpool needs to be there consistently. We will be really strong and really fight for it and we want to be there. In the last 10 years Liverpool was not a part of it too often. In the middle of first part of season I knew we are ready but that doesn't mean anything. We had to do it then."
Unlike their last embarrassing appearance three years ago, Klopp and Anfield could prove such an intoxicating combination they may take some shifting. (© Daily Telegraph, London)