Third. Third? Third!
Before I get to the football, there are two men that deserve special mention. For the Reds, Gini Wijnaldum’s face was clear when he was replaced to the fitting roar of his name sung by real fans. He isn’t staying. But the contributions that he had made for this team will never be forgotten. There is no sixth Champions League trophy without him, for one thing. He has been massive for this side throughout his entire tenure, leaving it all out on the pitch, game in and game out. With the team’s spine breaking (as per Klopp), there is no way that Liverpool would have survived as well as it has this season without him, either, and his role in securing its spot in the Champions League next season was instrumental. He will be dearly missed, remembered as a Liverpool great.
In the opposite dugout, this was Roy Hodgson’s last game as a premier league manager. His time during the dark days at Anfield a bit over a decade ago was difficult, and he did not survive it. But as a fan during those days, I enjoyed his fierce approach, which did not come at a cost to his professionalism, and did not attribute the team’s failings to him as much as to the incredibly unstable situation it found itself in under the previous owners. He has been a sort of friendly thorn in our sides since then, but one cannot deny that he is one of football’s great characters. Thank you for all the years, Roy. The world of football will miss you.
Back to the football then.
Let me start with this: how can you not love the Premier League?
What did Villa have to play for? Nothing at all. What did Palace have to play for? Exactly the same. Yet both of these teams showed up to their games, against top teams that actually had everything to play for, and gave it a proper fight. In the end, the Villans could have ended up villainous for the Blues, had the Foxes not lost their nerves against Spurs. And Palace could have easily ruined the night at Anfield, as at times they looked set to rock a somewhat shaky Liverpool backline. There is no other football league in the world that has this level of competitiveness – La Liga gets close, but is still generally dominated by Real and Barca, with the Colchoneros’ playing occasional spoiler.
In the end, out of the three teams fighting for Champions League football, the only one that didn’t bottle it up was Liverpool. In a season such as the one the team had just had, with injuries utterly devastating both its defensive line and its midfield, it is a truly remarkable achievement for the Reds to finish third; it feels almost like winning the championship. It is a testament to the side’s resilience and ability to overcome great obstacles and beat terrific odds, and their prize of top level competition next year is well earned.
The only low note for the night is that Salah didn’t get a goal, although he did get one decent opportunity grab it, and his miss denied him a third golden boot – and Sadio Mane a hattrick. It’s good to see Mane scoring regularly again, but even today his goals were not decisive; the first one was a simple yet lucky tap-in, and he pretty much botched the second but then got a lucky deflection to convert. Still, getting back into proper scoring form can be tough, and getting some lucky goals is part of the process.
All that said, it is one force that, I feel, is the primary reason for this recent turnaround in fortunes, and his name is Thiago Alcantara. His man-of-the-match performance today was brilliant, and at times, it seemed magical; with the kind of wind that the players had to contend with today, he somehow still managed to complete a number of key long passes that would have been difficult enough without any air flowing madly around, as it was today. It is an amazing ability, that, and I can see a complex invisible diagram floating above his head every time he figures it all out before Sherlocking the ball to a teammate in dangerous position.
And that’s just his passing. He was everywhere, in the right place at the right time, doing the right things to relieve pressure or build it as necessary, and even his tackling seems to have improved, somehow. What he will be able to do with Virgil behind him and Hendo next to him is anyone’s guess, but it is guaranteed to be fun to watch.
And so concludes the most difficult season in memory, a season played in front of empty stadiums, and one that has kept the medical staff at merseyside busy beyond any reason. Liverpool somehow finds itself in third, which is still a bit hard to believe. Summer beckons, the silly season is about to open, it can’t possibly get any worse than it has been this past year, and we can therefore truly look ahead with hope in our hearts.
See ya in a few months!