Having had a ten-point lead over fifth placed Chelsea just three weeks ago our Champions League qualification for next season seemed certain. Going into the game with Stoke City in late April we needed just four points from our final three games to do just that. However, our inability to win a game since beating Bournemouth on 8th April coupled with Chelsea’s own five game winning streak (that was before Huddersfield rolled into West London on Wednesday night) meant that lead has now been cut to just two points. The task was clear for Jurgen Klopp’s chargers going into yesterday’s game with Brighton – get a point and reserve a seat at Europe’s top table next season.
With this season Champions League still be contested for Klopp had a team selection to consider. He made only one change to his strongest line-up available. Dominic Solanke started up front for James Milner, who is almost certain to start in Kiev in two weeks’ time. There was a welcome face on the bench for Liverpool too with Adam Lallana back in the fold after getting injured against Crystal Palace back in March. Brighton secured their Premier League survival with a 1-0 home over Manchester United last Friday and are now playing for pride. Chris Hughton picked a relatively strong side for this game, with Beram Kayal and Solly March the only unfamiliar names in the starting XI.
Liverpool started the game in frenetic fashion immediately taking the game to Brighton. The away side were unable to cope with us from the first minute and would struggle throughout the game. Shane Duffy’s slip up within the first four minutes nearly gifted Liverpool a goal but Solanke couldn’t sort his feet out to capitalise. Minutes later Duffy was at the centre of the action again when he stooped to clear Trent Alexander-Arnold’s cross which, upon inspection of the replays, he clearly executed with his arm.
Liverpool continued to ascend, and Duffy got away with another hazardous decision on eighteen minutes when he brought down the meandering Mo Salah just inside the box. The touch on the ball was miniscule however Kevin Friend decided there was enough to dismiss the penalty claims, despite the foul clearly coming first. Brighton were now falling to bits and, a minute later, Sadio Mane was played clean through by Alexander-Arnold. With Roberto Firmino sprinting into the six-yard box Mane chose to ignore him and went for goal himself, but couldn’t beat the sprawling Matt Ryan. It was a huge chance for Liverpool to take the lead and when the next one came along it wouldn’t be passed up.
On twenty-six minutes Solanke found himself in the area with the ball at his feet again. This time instead of lumbering into opposition players he showed good close control before squeezing a lovely pass into the path of Mo Salah. He cut inside Duffy before sending a shot into the bottom left hand corner of Ryan’s goal to put Liverpool 1-0 up. The relief around Anfield was palpable and made all the more so when news filtered through a couple of minutes later that Dwight Gayle had put Newcastle ahead against Chelsea at St. James’ Park. Our place in the top four was now all but confirmed.
Liverpool were now in full flight and it looked as if the Brighton goal was living a charmed life. Immediately following the goal Firmino toepoked ashot over the bar from the edge of the box before Liverpool would squander another guilt-edged chance on the half hour mark. Played clean through by Gini Wijnaldum, Mane bore down on Ryan with Salah sprinting alongside him. Trying to avoid a repeat of his earlier debacle, Mane elected to square for Salah instead of going for goal himself but under-hit his pass. As Salah pulled the trigger the goalkeeper was already at his feet smothering the effort. The Reds were now squandering good chances which could come back to bite us. On the stroke of half time though we finaly did put one to bed.
Andy Robertson took a corner from the left which didn’t make it past the first man. He picked up the loose ball to swing a beautiful ball into the six-yard box. No one in blue and white was able to get off the floor to the extent Dejan Lovren did, as the Croatian produced a superhuman leap before powering a wonderfully placed header in the bottom corner of the goal. Liverpool now had a healthy cushion and the only shame was that we had to have a break. Jurgen Klopp will have been delighted with his side going in at half time whereas Chris Hughton will surely have been struggling to see a way back into this game for The Seagulls.
Liverpool started the second half as they finished the first and forced Matt Ryan into saves early on, through efforts from first Firmino and then Wijnaldum. On fifty minutes Ryan would be in action again, though this time it would be to pick the ball out of his net. Alexander-Arnold found Salah on the edge of the centre circle and the Egyptian skipped past the lunging Dale Stephens. With three players around, him Salah poked a lovely little ball into the feet of Solanke, repaying him for the earlier assist, and the former Chelsea man smashed his first goal into the back of the Anfield Road End net off the underside of the crossbar. Solanke sprinted away in sheer delight at finally having scored a Liverpool goal while Kopites inside the ground chanted the name of Rafa Benitez, whose Newcastle side were now 2-0 against Chelsea. Spurs’ seemingly imminent defeat at the hands of Leicester at Wembley also meant that we would finish third if scores remained as they were.
With the Champions League final now at the forefront of everyone’s minds the intensity in the game started to slow down and the manager began to make changes. Adam Lallana, fresh off the treatment table, replaced Sadio Mane, before Danny Ings was brought on for the imperious Mo Salah. The winger was brought off the pitch to the tune of rapturous applause, raucous cheers and a standing ovation for his exploits over the season. Having scored forty-four goals in this campaign and secured the Premier League’s golden boot thanks to a thirty two goal haul – now a record in a thirty eight game season – it was the very least he deserved. The scoring wasn’t done yet though and the final one was probably the most satisfying.
On eighty-five minutes Liverpool attacked down the left through Danny Ings. His square ball from the byline was cut out by the foot of Lewis Dunk. The ball fell straight to the feet of Andy Robertson, who took one touch before firing past Matt Ryan. Shane Duffy launched himself despairingly at the ball on the goal line but was powerless to prevent Robertson first goal in a red shirt and from scoring the one the Kop appreciated most on the day. Robertson has been a magnificent signing since arriving for just £8.5 million from Hull City last summer and nobody deserved this moment more than he did.
When Kevin Friend finally blew for full time he called time on a terrific Liverpool performance and an enthralling season. Though Chelsea had lost, and we had qualified for next season’s Champions League, Spurs had managed to peg back Leicester and had won a thoroughly entertaining game at Wembley 5-4, thus claiming third place for themselves. That couldn’t dampen the party atmosphere at Anfield though as the majority of the crowd stayed behind to see Kenny Dalglish present Mohamed Salah with his Premier League player of the season and golden boot awards – not to mention the infamous Golden Samba – and to wish the boys well before our meeting with Real Madrid in two weeks’ time.
It has been a thrilling season to be a red and it isn’t over yet. This was a more important win than people may realise right now. Having not won in three we were on the verge of going to Kiev low on confidence and belief, no one more so than Mohamed Salah. Instead, not only have we beaten our opposition today, but we completely annihilated. The scoreline flattered Brighton and we could, and maybe should, have scored six or seven. We now head to Ukraine in fine fettle and with plenty to concern Zinedine Zidane and co. Be afraid ZiZou, be very afraid.