The 2020-21 season is over as far as the Premier League is concerned. Manchester City deservedly won the title a while ago, and it was pretty clear United would finish runners-up as well, but the race for the remaining two places in next season’s Champions League was exciting right to the end.
It seemed for a long time during their slump over the first three months of the calendar year that Liverpool were destined to miss out, but a late string of good results saw them turn their fortunes around in the nick of time. In the end, they held matters in their own hands, needing a win against Crystal Palace in the final round, and a brace from Sadio Mane made sure they got there.
The future of Georginio Wijnaldum has been a subject of speculation throughout the campaign, and it still remains unclear apart from his departure from Anfield being practically certain. The Dutch all-round midfielder will be out of contract at the end of June and has so far failed to reach an agreement with the club over a new one.
It was a very emotional affair for Wijnaldum as he stepped out onto the turf to a guard of honor from his teammates and manager, and not less so when he made way for James Milner in the 78th minute, leaving the pitch to thunderous applause.
He played in all 38 league matches of the season, 34 starts, which underlines his importance as the most reliable player Jurgen Klopp has commanded in his time at the club. His contribution will never be forgotten on Merseyside, especially his two goals in that stunning comeback against Barcelona which made the winning of the 2019 Champions League possible. For his part, he said after the game he would remain a Liverpool supporter for the rest of his life.
Overall, the 30-year-old made 237 appearances in all competitions over five years for Liverpool, scoring 22 goals and producing 16 assists, helping them immensely in their quests which brought not only the Champions League, but also the UEFA Super Cup, the FIFA Club World Cup and the long-awaited 19th Premier League title last year.
Wijnaldum has mostly been linked with Barcelona, though Paris Saint-Germain has been mentioned too, and his agent is believed to have contacted Bayern Munich.
Liverpool also said goodbye to kit man Graham Carter, who is retiring after 35 years of loyal service. Klopp himself spoke very highly of him prior to the match, and took him to be saluted by the reborn Kop afterwards, as 10,000 supporters returned to the Anfield stands after 14 months of absence.
This match was also the last in charge of Crystal Palace for Roy Hodgson. The 73-year-old confirmed some time ago he would be stepping down from the role at the end of the season. He hasn’t announced a decision regarding potential retirement, but it is widely believed that the man who’s been managing football teams for 45 years will manage no more.
Incidentally, Liverpool were one of the many clubs Hodgson managed, but he won’t think back too fondly of his time there and neither will the club’s supporters. He was sacked after just over six months.
However, most of the football world recognized the impact Hodgson has had on the game, given the length of his career and the number of teams he managed – 17 clubs, four senior national sides and England’s Under-23s. Palace have been his longest charge, having led the Eagles in 162 matches.
Big changes are afoot at Selhurst Park this summer. Apart from Hodgson leaving, no less than 15 players are running out of contract, which means a complete reconstruction will be needed over the next few months.
The visitors came to Anfield with nothing to win and nothing to lose. It was an opportunity for them to play freely and not think about the scoreline too much, which can often be a blessing.
They started well enough, pressing high and creating a few promising situation, including one wasted by Andros Townsend as he took advantage of a misplaced pass from the opposition to charge at Alisson Becker, but his shot ended up going wide of the target. Wilfried Zaha also looked lively early on and got himself in a chance, coming in from the left, but Alisson saved his effort from a tight corner without difficulty.
It seems that, like Burnley erlier in the week, Palace aimed to score first and try and protect that lead, but they weren’t any more successful at it than the Clarets were as Mane opened the scoring for Liverpool in the 36th minute. Things went downhill from there and they never really looked like getting back into the contest. Frustration took them towards the end, clearly seen as forward Jordan Ayew reacted to getting fouled by Trent Alexander-Arnold by squaring up to the young Liverpool fullback and got a yellow card for his effort.
In such circumstances, it wasn’t very difficult for a team of Liverpool’s quality to keep control of the game and secure the result they needed.
Oh, Mane, Mane
Mohamed Salah was the only Liverpool forward to have kept scoring through a troubled season. His 22 league goals have put him in second place on the chart, missing out on the top spot to Harry Kane whose goal against Leicester City was his 23rd.
Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane were often criticised, and rightly so, for failing to come anywhere near the levels they had shown over the previous campaigns, but Firmino scored three goals in the two matches before the final round, and now it was Mane’s turn.
The Senegal international was the quickest to react in a scramble inside the box in the first half and poked the ball into the back of the net from close range. His and Liverpool’s second on the evening was a product of a fine counterattack, and a bit of luck as his shot from just inside the box picked up a deflection and confused Vicente Guaita in the Palace goal.
Obviously, Firmino and Mane woke up just in time to help their team reach their goal at the end of the season.
As it turned out in the end, Liverpool would have finished third even if they had drawn this match, as Leicester lost to Spurs at home and Chelsea were beaten by Aston Villa at the Villa Park. It is their fifth consecutive top-four finish, and it’s likely to affect their summer transfer business in a positive way.
Meanwhile, Leicester, led by another ex-Liverpool boss – Brendan Rodgers, have suffered disappointment again, having narrowly missed out on Champions League qualification last year as well. They led twice against Spurs, courtesy of two penalties executed by Jamie Vardy, but the North London outfit fought back and practically let Chelsea off the hook for the Villa Park defeat.
It will have been a great sigh of relief for Thomas Tuchel and his men. Even though the Blues would have had another chance to qualify for the Champions League, facing Manchester City in the competition’s final next week, they now won’t have to worry about that added pressure in what will surely be a charged up contest anyway.
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