SO here it is. An entire season comes down to this. It may not be the prize we were all dreaming of when Gini Wijnaldum slammed home number six against Watford in November, but it nonetheless represents an advancement of this football team and the next stage in Jürgen Klopp’s quest to turn doubters into believers.
It’s been a while since Liverpool were concerned with Champions League qualification this late in the season. Since the days of Rafa Benitez the Reds have either been well off the pace, or in the case of 2013-14, entirely forgetting about it as there was a shinier, holier grail on offer.
It’s been said that Sunday’s clash with Middlesbrough will be like a final, even if the manager doesn’t think so. It inevitably evokes memories of last year when the Europa League final with Sevilla was billed more as a Champions League qualifier than a fight for a trophy. The Redmen came up short that night, and have to make sure they don’t end this campaign with the same empty feeling of what might have been, staring into the abyss as Coke made it 3-1 in Basel and we all experienced our sub-conscious Spotify skipping straight to ‘Hello darkness my old friend…’
If these Reds need a template of how to get what, with all due respect, would normally be a simple win over a very poor and now unmotivated Middlesbrough side, they need look no further than Gerard Houllier’s team from a decade and a half ago.
After winning a historic treble, Liverpool went into the final day of the 2000-1 season needing a win at Charlton to confirm their place in the following season’s Champions League. After a nervy first half, they ruthlessly smashed four past the Addicks in the second 45 to seal the win with ease and keep Leeds United at bay.
A year later they were already confirmed in the top four by the final day, but back then the team that finished third would also need to go through a playoff to qualify, and so solidifying second place ahead of Manchester United was vital.
As they will be on Sunday, Liverpool were at home to a team in the relegation zone. Unlike Sunday, that Ipswich side still had an outside chance of surviving, needing to win at Anfield and hoping that Sunderland would lose at home to Derby County.
Towards the end of the 2001-2 season Liverpool had been purring, with the attacking talents of Michael Owen, Emile Heskey and on-loan Nicolas Anelka tearing teams up with glee. It was, on occasion, akin to the football that this team produced in the first half of the season.
There were nerves, as there had been before facing Charlton a season earlier. What if they balls it up? What if Ipswich put in an inexplicably good performance against us? What if this isn’t as straightforward as we hope it will be?
It soon became apparent that Houllier had let his Reds out and they would not be messing about. Two trademark belters from John Arne Riise in the first half were joined by second half goals from Owen, Vlad Smicer and Anelka, completing a 5-0 hammering to send the Tractor Boys chugging down to the Championship and the Reds into the group stages of the Champions League.
(As an aside, if you haven’t already then I’d recommend checking out The Anfield Wrap’s excellent exclusive interview with Anelka. It was at times a hard listen though, especially hearing the Frenchman say how much he wanted to stay and how he could have seen himself at Liverpool for a long time had he signed permanently in the summer of 2002.)
It’s no use to anyone of course but when you consider what happened to him and us after that summer, it’s hard not to think of how different things could have been had common sense prevailed and Houllier signed him up. Liverpool would have had one of Europe’s elite strikers, instead of El Hadji Diouf who was as much use as Kenneth Williams in a sumo wrestling match, and Houllier’s next season could have seen Owen and Anelka fully establish what had the potential to be one of the deadliest partnerships in the game. Anelka consistently scored goals at Manchester City, Bolton and Chelsea for another nine years after that, and if he’d spent those years and scored those goals at Liverpool instead, it could have saved us a lot of money and a lot of wasted games with inferior strikers up top.
But I digress.
The Reds’ home form in recent games is the main worry heading into Sunday. All of the teams Liverpool have dropped points against in the last two months (Bournemouth, Crystal Palace and Southampton) are significantly better than Middlesbrough, but it remains a concern (make sure you get that pitch as wet as possible, gaffer) Klopp and his gang of lads haven’t convincingly dispatched a non-top six side at Anfield since Stoke on Boxing Day.
Then again, Liverpool hadn’t really convincingly beaten anyone since that game, until they went to West Ham on Sunday and put a great big frown on Ray Winstone’s sizeable floating head. “Bet in-play now on the next goalscorer… it’ll be some bastard in yellow, by the way.”
With Danny Sturridge and Adam Lallana back, and Phil Coutinho reinventing himself as Demetrio Albertini at a handy time, these Reds look hungry to set things straight and end the season happy. It’s been a while since they’ve managed that.
Third place would be great, especially as there’s still a chance Liverpool could be unseeded in the Champions League playoff round, but we can’t get too caught up with that. Just beat Middlesbrough and whatever happens between Watford and Manchester City happens.
Klopp is a winner. His players want to be winners, and they are good enough to be winners, so let’s just win, lads. Just fucking win.
Remember Charlton. Remember Ipswich. Ruthless aggression, from players and fans alike.
This Sunday, Liverpool have a chance to get back among Europe’s elite and let them all know that we’re coming up the hill.
One more match. One more win.
No doubt. Just belief.