Liverpool 3 Middlesbrough 0: When the two minutes of injury-time were up, Jurgen Klopp stood slowly, grinned, hugged every man on the Liverpool bench, and then went and casually but earnestly shook the hand of Steve Agnew, the Middlesbrough caretaker manager.
There was no chest beating, no jutting chin, no teeth gnashing, no dislodged glasses, Germanic histrionics, or Oscar-worthy moments of excitement or exultation.
In fact, the only fireworks at the final whistle were of the literal sort, a flare let off in the main dtand on the final whistle of a match that confirmed Liverpool’s place in the Champions League play-off in August.
It is 40 years on Thursday since Liverpool first became the champions of Europe.
That night in Rome has become embroidered into the DNA of the club and the heroes of that night in the Stadio Olimpico would no doubt approve of the low-key celebrations this win brought.
If Anfield had exploded in a cacophony of joy at the final whistle — after a match where the result was in doubt until Georginio Wijnaldum’s opener on the stroke of half-time — then that would suggest that Klopp, the Kop, and everybody in between was satisfied with a fourth-placed finish and the European qualifying bunfight to follow.
But neither Klopp or Liverpool’s fans are happy with fourth. Liverpool may have fallen 17 points short of champions Chelsea this season and their wait for a league title may have been extended by yet another year but Klopp now has both a boardroom and a dressing-room united in its quest for success. Yet Klopp knows Liverpool remain a work in progress rather than a work of art as he continues the arduous task of dragging the club back to the summit of English and European football, hence his calm full-time demeanour.
Klopp said: “Everything is good in this club at the moment. It feels good. We deserve this position. 76 points is an outstanding number.
“We learned a lot this year about ourselves and we can use that. At the end of the season you are usually tired but I could start again tomorrow. I’m really pleased that we achieved a little bit of what we have not achieved in the past. That shows that we can do it.”
Early chances for Nathaniel Clyne, Roberto Firmino, and Emre Can all failed to hurt Middlesbrough, who offered nothing going forward apart from one penalty shout when Dejan Lovren appeared to drag Patrick Bamford down.
Martin Atkinson waved away the appeals and that was the slice of luck Liverpool needed.
On the verge of half-time, Firmino played Wijnaldum through on goal and he blasted past a sluggish Brad Guzan into the roof of the net.
That alleviated the nerves that had grown around Anfield ever since the news filtered through that Manchester City and Arsenal were both winning their encounters, and thus pushing Liverpool into fifth.
Wijnaldum’s goal elbowed Arsenal back out of the way before Philippe Coutinho’s wonderful 51st minute free-kick fooled the Middlesbrough wall and Guzan. And when Adam Lallana made it 3-0 on 56 minutes, skipping daintily through Middlesbrough’s defence before slotting home after 12 yards, Liverpool’s involvement in Europe’s elite competition was confirmed.
Klopp said: “[The Champions League] is the best tournament in Europe. There is nothing better, maybe in the world. For me, it’s the best competition and Liverpool needs to be there all the time, and I love the perspective. I don’t want to say we are already in — qualification is qualification — but we are really strong, we want to fight for it and be there. It’s all good. You have to make steps and the steps for us are to be around the best teams in the world because we are one of the best clubs in the world.”
Mignolet 6; Clyne 7, Matip 6, Lovren 7, Milner 7 (Moreno 86, 5); Can 7; Wijnaldum 7, Coutinho 7; Lallana 7; Sturridge 6 (Origi 82, 5), Firmino 6 (Luicas 79,5).
Substitutes not used:
Karius, Alexander-Arnold, Klavan, Grujic.
Guzan 5; Fabio 5 (Ayala 73,6), Chambers 6, Gibson 6, Friend 6; Clayton 6, Leadbitter 6, Forshaw 6; Bamford 6, Gestede 5 (Negredo 73, 6), Downing 5.
Substitutes not used:
Dimi, Bernardo, De Roon, Fischer, Stuani.
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