Wijnaldum, Coutinho and Lallana send Liverpool to Champions League
With 45 minutes gone, Anfield was threatening to be consumed by tension and anxiety, but Georginio Wijnaldum's strike in first-half stoppage time settled the nerves and the Reds ran out comfortable 3-0 winners over Middlesbrough in the end to secure a well-deserved place in the top four.
In recent times Liverpool have often fluffed their lines on the big occasion, so getting the job done under pressure this time this was a big step in the right direction.
No negatives, just relief and encouragement about the signs of progression the team have shown over 38 games.
Manager rating out of 10
7 -- It would have been easy to keep the same team that demolished West Ham last weekend but Jurgen Klopp elected to bring back fit again Roberto Firmino in place of Divock Origi. Crucially, he retained the 4-4-2 diamond formation. Showed his sentimental side in his use of substitutes late on, giving Lucas Leiva and Alberto Moreno what could be their last run outs as Liverpool players at Anfield.
Player ratings (1-10; 10 = best. Players introduced after 70 minutes get no rating)
GK Simon Mignolet, 7 -- Made some strong punched clearances under pressure and pulled off an important stop to deny Adam Forshaw seconds after the Reds had taken a 3-0 lead. He's had a good season, with the last couple of months absolutely outstanding.
DF Nathaniel Clyne, 6 -- Had a great chance to open the scoring and settle everyone's nerves inside the opening 10 minutes but fluffed his lines. Nobody was surprised. Steady and reliable, but never spectacular.
DF Joel Matip, 6 -- Found it difficult dealing with Rudy Gestede in the air, but he's not alone there, as very few can. Positionally sound and made a number of important interceptions.
DF Dejan Lovren, 5 -- Involved in the most contentious moment of the game when he got caught on the wrong side of Patrick Bamford and saw the striker go tumbling. It could have been a penalty and red card on another day, but referee Martin Atkinson shook his head and Anfield breathed a massive sigh of relief. The Croatian also needlessly conceded a corner soon afterward when under no pressure, but he settled down once Liverpool took the lead and he got through the second half without any further incident.
DF James Milner, 7 -- Strong and determined in the tackle, never stopped running, linked well with Philippe Coutinho and Adam Lallana and delivered several excellent crosses into the danger area.
MF Emre Can, 7 -- At times seemed to be trying to do too much and frequently vacated his position to chase down opponents. Settled as the game wore on and kept things ticking over nicely.
MF Georginio Wijnaldum, 8 -- Started brightly but faded until he popped up at just the right time to open the scoring. It was a good finish but it needed to be as he chose to ignore a completely unmarked Daniel Sturridge in the centre. The Dutchman has proved to be a man for the big occasion this season with crucial goals in some of the most important games.
MF Philippe Coutinho, 8 -- Playing once again in a deeper role, the Brazilian was terrific to watch on the ball and the Boro players struggled to get anywhere near him. Seemed a little too keen to shoot from distance in the first half and most of his attempted through balls had a little too much on them, but he delivered in a big way with a trademark free kick just after the break and was involved in most of Liverpool's best moments.
MF Adam Lallana, 8 -- Much of his work goes unnoticed, but his clever movement and strong running ahead of the ball frequently opens up space for his teammates. Usually one of the calmest men on the pitch, but even he was affected by the tension of the occasion and one speculative shot in the first half drew the ire of Klopp. That was a rare lapse, however, and he more than made up for it by grabbing the third goal with a cool finish to finally make the game safe.
FW Roberto Firmino, 7 -- Lots of nice touches and clever movement, and his flick set Wijnaldum clear for the opening goal. Worked hard as always, until he was replaced late on by his compatriot Lucas.
FW Daniel Sturridge, 7 -- Didn't get on the scoresheet and was often left frustrated when the ball didn't come his way when in good positions. Looked sharp with the ball at his feet, and his presence gives Liverpool's attack extra punch. A decision needs to be made on his future, but it's not an easy one.
MF Lucas Leiva, NR -- Introduced late on after the crowd had demanded it. Encouraged to "SHOOT!!" every time he had the ball, the Brazilian was close to getting in on a couple of occasions, but Coutinho couldn't quite get the ball through to him.
FW Divock Origi, NR -- A replacement for Sturridge on 82 minutes when the game was won, he had little time to make an impact.
DF Alberto Moreno, NR -- Ran around a lot in the five minutes he was given, got into a confrontation with a Boro player but barely got a touch of the ball.
Dave Usher is one of ESPN's Liverpool bloggers and the founder of LFC fanzine and website The Liverpool Way. Follow him on Twitter: @theliverpoolway.