Liverpool salvaged Champions League football from a chaotic season undermined by a succession of serious injuries and a catastrophic run of home form after the turn of the year with victory over Crystal Palace at Anfield.
Jurgen Klopp’s side never threatened to retain their Premier League title and fell timidly to Real Madrid in the Champions League quarter-final but Liverpool rallied to win their final five Premier League games – including that remarkable last-gasp header by keeper Alisson at West Bromwich Albion – to claim a prize that looked unlikely since the turn of the year.
Liverpool got the result they needed against Palace, with manager Roy Hodgson taking charge for the final time, as Sadio Mane poked home from a corner nine minutes before half-time to ease early anxieties.
The Senegal forward wrapped up victory and that coveted Champions League place with a deflected shot in the 74th minute.
Andros Townsend gave Liverpool, playing in front of 10,000 returning supporters, an early scare when he raced clear only to shoot off target before Liverpool took control – with Leicester and Chelsea’s results meaning they finished in a creditable third given their injury problems.
No trophies – but Klopp will be delighted
Liverpool were contemplating a season in the Europa League or Conference – or indeed no European football at all – when Joe Willock’s 95th-minute equaliser gave Newcastle United a point on 24 April.
Liverpool’s players and Klopp looked shell-shocked as they sat in sixth place, and not looking like a side likely to string a run of wins together.
However they held their nerve and found their form, with their five consecutive victories to end the season meaning they will be back in Europe’s elite tournament next term despite the struggles of this campaign.
There was nothing more dramatic than that late Alisson header at The Hawthorns, when the keeper raced forward in desperation with Liverpool being held 1-1 and their Champions League ambitions slipping away.
To finish in the top four is a success, of sorts, given it was delivered in the face of disruption and an astonishing collapse in form.
Virgil van Dijk was ruled out for the season by a knee injury in September, soon to be followed by fellow defenders Joe Gomez and Joel Matip while new signing Thiago Alcantara’s Liverpool career got off to a false start, also because of injury.
The likes of captain Jordan Henderson and £45m summer signing Diogo Jota were also ruled out for lengthy periods.
Throw in the worst run of home results in Liverpool history – six straight league defeats – and it seems remarkable that a season containing so much poor form can conclude on a relative high and third place ahead of the likes of Chelsea and Leicester City, ahead of them for so long.
Liverpool have not come close to silverware but the scenes when Mane scored his second and at the final whistle – muted celebrations at best – hinted at a mixture of delight and relief that Klopp and his players had made the best of a bad job this season to earn entry to next season’s Champions League.
Hodgson’s tame ending
Roy Hodgson’s Premier League managerial career ended at Anfield, where he endured a short and unsuccessful spell in charge after succeeding Rafael Benitez in summer 2010.
He did not win over Liverpool fans then but heard the sound of warm applause from them on Sunday when he made a pre-match appearance at the side of the pitch.
Palace started as if they were in the mood to give Hodgson a victorious send-off and scupper Liverpool’s Champions League plans but once Townsend missed a good early chance and Mane had put Klopp’s side in front, the traffic largely flowed in only one direction.
Hodgson has done a steady job in the manner expected of him but now the Palace hierarchy must decide on their next move, with the hunt on for a new manager and numerous players coming to the end of their contracts.
There will, no doubt, be the usual summer speculation surrounding Wilfried Zaha but, whether he stays or goes, it will be a time of change at Selhurst Park.
- 66Alexander-ArnoldBooked at 71mins
- 46R Williams
- 26RobertsonSubstituted forOxlade-Chamberlainat 90+2′minutes
- 6Thiago Alcántara
- 5WijnaldumSubstituted forMilnerat 78′minutesBooked at 86mins
- 9FirminoSubstituted forJotaat 90+1′minutes
- 76N Williams
- 5TomkinsSubstituted forSchluppat 58′minutes
- 8KouyatéSubstituted forKellyat 89′minutes
- 22McCarthySubstituted forvan Aanholtat 88′minutes
- 44RiedewaldBooked at 83mins
- 9J AyewBooked at 71mins
- 3van Aanholt
- Craig Pawson
Match ends, Liverpool 2, Crystal Palace 0.
Second Half ends, Liverpool 2, Crystal Palace 0.
Substitution, Liverpool. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain replaces Andrew Robertson.
Substitution, Liverpool. Diogo Jota replaces Roberto Firmino.
Substitution, Crystal Palace. Martin Kelly replaces Cheikhou Kouyaté because of an injury.
Substitution, Crystal Palace. Patrick van Aanholt replaces James McCarthy.
Attempt saved. Gary Cahill (Crystal Palace) left footed shot from the centre of the box is saved in the bottom left corner. Assisted by Andros Townsend with a cross.
James Milner (Liverpool) is shown the yellow card for a bad foul.
Foul by James Milner (Liverpool).
Jeffrey Schlupp (Crystal Palace) wins a free kick on the right wing.
Corner, Liverpool. Conceded by Vicente Guaita.
Attempt saved. Mohamed Salah (Liverpool) left footed shot from the centre of the box is saved in the bottom right corner. Assisted by Andrew Robertson.
Corner, Liverpool. Conceded by Tyrick Mitchell.
Jairo Riedewald (Crystal Palace) is shown the yellow card for a bad foul.
Thiago (Liverpool) wins a free kick in the attacking half.
Foul by Jairo Riedewald (Crystal Palace).
Attempt missed. Mohamed Salah (Liverpool) left footed shot from the right side of the box is close, but misses to the left. Assisted by Roberto Firmino.
Foul by Thiago (Liverpool).
Jordan Ayew (Crystal Palace) wins a free kick on the left wing.
Substitution, Liverpool. James Milner replaces Georginio Wijnaldum.