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Saturday, June 19, 2021

Mane double helps Liverpool beat Palace and finish third

Liverpool beat Crystal Palace at Anfield to salvage Champions League qualification from a chaotic season undermined by serious injuries and a catastrophic run of home form after the turn of the year.

Jurgen Klopp’s side never threatened to retain their Premier League title and fell timidly to Real Madrid in the Champions League but Liverpool rallied to win their final five Premier League games – including a remarkable last-gasp header by keeper Alisson at West Bromwich Albion – to claim a prize that looked unlikely since the turn of the year.

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Liverpool were initially nervous but got the result they needed against Palace – who had Roy Hodgson taking charge for the final time – thanks to two goals from Sadio Mane.

The Senegal forward poked home from a corner nine minutes before half-time to ease the early anxieties and wrapped up victory and a coveted Champions League place with a deflected shot in the 74th minute.

Andros Townsend gave Liverpool, playing in front of 10,000 returning supporters, an early scare when he raced clear only to shoot off target before the home side took control – with Leicester and Chelsea’s defeats meaning they finished in a creditable third given their injury problems.

No trophies – but Klopp will be delighted

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Liverpool were contemplating a season in the Europa League or Conference – or indeed no European football at all – when Joe Willock’s 95th-minute equaliser gave Newcastle United a point on 24 April.

Liverpool’s players and Klopp looked shell-shocked after that match – five days after another dispiriting draw at Leeds United – as they sat in sixth place and not looking like a side likely to string a series of wins together.

However they found their form and the five consecutive victories they ending the season with meaning they will be back in Europe’s elite tournament next term despite the struggles of this campaign.

There was nothing more dramatic than that late Alisson header at The Hawthorns, when the keeper raced forward in desperation with Liverpool being held 1-1 and their Champions League ambitions slipping away.

To finish in the top four is a success, of sorts, given it was delivered in the face of disruption and an astonishing collapse in form – especially at Anfield.

Virgil van Dijk was ruled out for the season by a knee injury in September, soon to be followed by fellow defenders Joe Gomez and Joel Matip while new signing Thiago Alcantara’s Liverpool career got off to a false start, also because of injury.

The likes of captain Jordan Henderson and £45m summer signing Diogo Jota were also ruled out for lengthy periods.

Throw in the worst run of home results in Liverpool history – six straight league defeats – and it seems remarkable that a season containing so much poor form can conclude on the relative high of third place ahead of the likes of Chelsea and Leicester City, who had been ahead of them for so long.

Liverpool have not come close to silverware but the scenes when Mane scored his second and at the final whistle – muted celebrations at best – hinted at a mixture of delight and relief that Klopp and his players had made the best of a bad job this season.

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