Andy Hunter at Anfield
Liverpool left it typically late to seal Champions League qualification but their farewell to an uplifting Premier League season and warm-up for Real Madrid was otherwise faultless. Mohamed Salah began an emphatic defeat of Brighton with a record 32nd goal of the league campaign and another Kop favourite, Andy Robertson, closed it with his first for the club. Anfield absorbed the exhibition in between.
“The perfect finale to a very exciting, intense season,” said Jürgen Klopp. “We showed again the kind of football that we couldn’t in the last few games because the boys are human, not machines.”
Salah’s contribution this season suggests otherwise. The Egypt international ended the afternoon with the Golden Boot, presented by Kenny Dalglish while his young daughter, Makka, enjoyed a kick-about, and as the most prolific goalscorer in a 38-game Premier League season, eclipsing Luis Suárez, Cristiano Ronaldo and Alan Shearer in the process.
Salah has not been the only Liverpool player to consistently deliver when it mattered. Klopp’s team qualified for the Champions League for a second season running with an unbeaten home record. This sunny Sunday-afternoon stroll against Chris Hughton’s side was also the 14th occasion that Liverpool scored four or more goals in a game. Only once, in 1895-96, has that record been bettered.
Klopp said of his leading goalscorer: “It’s fantastic what he has done. The last few weeks especially were difficult with every single day someone saying how brilliant you are and giving you an Oscar for this, an award for that, even getting out of the car without having an accident. This gives us a big boost. Imagine if the only chance to get into the Champions League was to win the Champions League final. That’s maybe not the best option to choose, but it’s exciting now.”
Brighton, survival ensured and their own season a success, tried to deliver a contest but were outclassed to such an extent that their neat passing game was confined to their own penalty area. They had nowhere else to go. Liverpool laid siege to Matthew Ryan’s goal from the start with Klopp picking Dominic Solanke on top of his imperious front three and seeing his team take complete control. Only poor finishing, overelaboration and Kevin Friend’s aversion to giving penalties delayed the inevitable.
The referee was well-placed when Shane Duffy handled a cross and felled Salah but waved away both appeals. When Sadio Mané then shot straight at Ryan having been played clean through by the impressive Solanke it could have been cue for apprehension among the home fans. But they appear immune to that these days. There is a belief in their team’s potency that the unerring accuracy of Salah has helped cement, and the first time he found space inside a crowded Brighton area another record fell at his feet.
Salah broke the Premier League scoring record when Trent Alexander-Arnold drove through the Brighton midfield and found Solanke on the edge of the area. The striker turned the ball on to Salah, who needed one touch to create space for a low left-foot finish. It was his 44th goal in total this season. A hat-trick against Real Madrid on 26 May will be required to equal Ian Rush’s all-time Liverpool record.
Dejan Lovren delivered the comfort of a two-goal lead with a towering header from Robertson’s inviting cross after Brighton cleared a corner but left the centre-half unmarked for the return ball. The cushion should have arrived earlier but Mané, having found himself through on goal once more, attempted to gift-wrap a second for Salah and enabled Ryan to intercept before Duffy blocked his second attempt on the goalline. Klopp went apoplectic in his technical area at Liverpool’s indulgence. It never seemed likely to cost them.
Georginio Wijnaldum and Roberto Firmino wasted excellent chances before the break – several in the Brazilian’s case – but the scoreline offered a more accurate reflection of Liverpool’s dominance when Solanke struck his first league goal for the club. It was an excellent finish too, created by Salah, who took Firmino’s pass and evaded two challenges before releasing Solanke inside the area. The Chelsea graduate gave Ryan no chance with a powerful drive that flew in via the underside of the bar.
To cap a perfect afternoon for Klopp’s team the final goal of the home season fell to the popular Robertson, perfectly placed to open his Liverpool account after Danny Ings’ cross deflected into his path. Adding to the manager’s satisfaction was the complete absence of fatigue in his players, something that had slowed their approach to the finishing line, having had a week to prepare for Brighton. A fortnight before Kiev looks ideal.
“A few people have asked me whether it’s too long but no, it’s perfect,” said Klopp. “It’s like a little pre-season for us. The boys need a little bit of rest. We will give them two days now and then we will go to a camp. We will not train high intensity, we will do a little tactical stuff, a little fitness work, keep them in shape and then we have five days to prepare for the last game. We are all happy about that.”