Liverpool beat Crystal Palace and complete stunning comeback in Premier League top four race

Two goals from Mane at Anfield leave manager Klopp celebrating team's 'massive achievement'

Not for the first time, Jurgen Klopp found a way to sum it up. “From nowhere to the Champions League in five weeks is a massive achievement,” he said. “Finishing the season in third is incredible. I can’t believe it. It was absolutely out of reach.”

But Liverpool’s comeback was completed, the rescue job timed to perfection. When they had 12 points from their previous 14 games, they were 13 points behind Leicester in March. Liverpool leapfrogged them, and Chelsea too.

Sadio Mane’s brace against Crystal Palace capped a remarkable recovery. The indelible image of their spring surge will forever remain Alisson Becker celebrating his 95th-minute winner at West Bromwich Albion but, out of the wreckage of a season that posed unprecedented difficulties and threatened to be an abject failure, they salvaged something to be proud of.

It concluded with a victory for them, a defeat for the departing Roy Hodgson, and a guard of honour for Gini Wijnaldum after his last game. “We all love him to bits,” said Klopp. “It is very emotional for me because I lose a friend and I will miss him.”

Wijnaldum’s name echoed around Anfield as it welcomed its biggest crowd for 14 months and began to feel like its old self. There was the loudest rendition of You’ll Never Walk Alone since March 2020. There was an atmosphere, moments in the first half where Liverpool rediscovered their old intensity, and the winning feeling they mislaid in an empty arena earlier this year.

“We were constantly sorting problems,” said Klopp, identifying his rookie centre-back partnership of Rhys Williams and Nat Phillips for particular praise. “It was so nice we could use the last five or six weeks to give this season a proper turnaround. Fighting through this and finishing here in third is the best lesson you could learn in life.”

They ended with 26 points in 10 games and as experts in escapology. This was the third time in his reign they clinched Champions League qualification on the final day, but they never had to come from so far back before.

So two scruffy goals ultimately had a beauty for Liverpool. Mane had deemed this his worst season but, right at its end, he proved decisive. A goal in either half meant that if this is the last act of Hodgson’s 45-year career, it was an anticlimactic one. “I now have to come to terms with the fact my last game was played,” he said.

Hodgson was applauded at Anfield in a way he rarely was as Liverpool manager. Klopp, who has been an admirer of his for three decades, greeted him with a hug. There was no capitulation: Palace had an early menace.

This week the emphasis was on Alisson’s goalkeeping, not his goalscoring, and he denied Wilfried Zaha and Andros Townsend in the opening exchanges. Townsend ought to have put Palace ahead when he latched on to Trent Alexander-Arnold’s misdirected pass, accelerated away but shot wide.

Liverpool have been architects of their own downfall at times this season. Not this time. They were spurred into life. Alexander-Arnold, Williams and Salah came close before Mane broke the deadlock.

Even in a year when his goals have dried up, some things never change and he scored in an eighth consecutive game against Palace, sliding in when Andrew Robertson’s corner was headed on by Williams and bounced off Roberto Firmino; this time when Liverpool struck from a corner, Alisson was not the scorer. Anfield breathed a sigh of relief and another when Salah teed-up Mane, whose shot took a touch off Gary Cahill on its way in.

Salah had a quartet of chances, with Vicente Guaita twice denying him a goal, once when Fabinho had released him with a long pass, once with a scrambling goal-line save. The Golden Boot instead goes to Harry Kane, but Liverpool got the prize they really wanted. “I am so happy for the Champions League that they don’t have to play without us,” Klopp smiled.

Published: May 23, 2021 10:07 PM

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