By Carl Markham, PA
Sadio Mane’s two goals ensured Liverpool delivered when it mattered as the 2-0 victory over Crystal Palace secured not only Champions League football but a surprise third-placed finish.
With results for Chelsea and Leicester going their way the eighth victory in an unbeaten 10-match run saw Jurgen Klopp’s side finish the campaign just five points behind second-placed Manchester United.
Mane became only the second player in Premier League history after Robin Van Persie to score in eight consecutive appearances against the same opponent with goals late in either half.
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But while Mane may have been the finisher Thiago Alcantara was the architect, with the Spain international concluding his maiden season at the club displaying the quality which for so long had been absent due to injury and illness.
It was just what the lucky 10,000 inside Anfield had wanted to see having been starved of live football for so long and while the performance was far from their best, there were enough good passages of play to suggest a team devastated by injury this season will bounce back next.
While rivals will mock Klopp’s praising of the achievement in securing Champions League football, a place among Europe’s elite again next season will be vital for a number of reasons – both financial and status – after more than a year operating in a global pandemic.
The players eventually warmed to the occasion having suffered a sluggish start, during which Wilfried Zaha and Andros Townsend both tested Alisson Becker.
They should have been punished for that when Townsend ran clear after latching onto a loose Trent Alexander-Arnold throw-in but the winger shot wide with only the goalkeeper to beat.
That was the wake-up call Klopp’s side needed as they began to build a head of steam with some slick passing moves but, as on many other occasions at home this season, the final touch was lacking.
Just as Alexander-Arnold whipped a free-kick just wide, news filtered through Leicester had taken the lead meaning Liverpool were in danger of missing out on Champions League football.
The mood was not helped by rookie centre-back Rhys Williams missing a sitter when, unmarked, he headed over from six yards.
Mohamed Salah, attempting to secure his third Golden Boot in four seasons, could not hit the target or beat Vicente Guaita from Thiago’s delicious pass.
Captain on the day Georginio Wijnaldum took the wrong option in passing to Mane, who curled wide, instead of shooting from Salah’s cut-back.
It looks to be the last time that accusation is levelled at Wijnaldum by Reds fans as in his pre-match interview the out-of-contract midfielder said no new deal had been agreed, while he was given a post-match guard of honour by his team.
Set-pieces have been Liverpool’s weakest area for some time in the absence of the injured Virgil Van Dijk but when it mattered most they made one count.
Williams atoned for his earlier error by flicking on Andy Robertson’s corner and Roberto Firmino’s half-control diverted the ball to Mane who poked home from close range, a goal which moved Liverpool into third place.
After Firmino’s header was tipped over early in the second half the hosts’ tempo dropped, as if they were aware of the situation elsewhere and were just trying to see out time.
It would have been a risky tactic had Palace not been so particularly disinclined to attack and, as a result, Liverpool were able to regain their foothold and deliver the finishing blow.
Fittingly it was started by Thiago, who has finished the season stronger than anyone, who intercepted inside his own penalty area to start a sweeping move which ended with Mane’s shot deflecting in off Gary Cahill.
The Golden Boot was obviously preying on Salah’s mind by then as twice he opted to shoot with team-mates better placed but on this occasion his selfishness could be forgiven by fans grateful just to celebrate a top-four finish which looked unlikely only a few weeks ago.