The final day of the Premier League season often brings with it plenty of drama. With Chelsea having wrapped up the title and three clubs already relegated, all the attention is on the race for the top four positions.
As things stand, Liverpool occupy for the 4th and final Champions League qualify place, with 73 points, which is 1 point more than Arsenal who are in 5th position. Manchester City enter the final round of fixtures in 3rd place, 2 points clear of Liverpool.
If Manchester City were to lose their match at Watford, there is a chance Liverpool could move into third place and this would guarantee a place in the group stages of the Champions League next season. While making the top four is the most important thing and it may appear greedy to think about third place, a guaranteed place in the Champions League group stages cannot be underestimated.
The amount of money sure to come into the club would be more than a fourth-place finish, which seals a place in the play-off round. The draw for the play-off round could throw up a match against a top team from the Bundesliga, La Liga or Serie A. So, the importance of finishing third in the Premier League cannot be overlooked but first things first, Liverpool must win their final match of the season at home to Middlesbrough.
One glance at the league table and other than Sunderland, there is no other team you would pick to play in a fixture of this importance.
Middlesbrough have already been relegated from the Premier League and will return to the Championship at the first time of asking. They have found victories very difficult to achieve in the top flight and parted company with their manager, Aitor Karanka mid-way through the season.
Steve Agnew came in and was unable to arrest the slide and Middlesbrough have struggled to win games throughout the season.
They arrive at Anfield with nothing but pride to play for and have won only 1 of their previous 20 Premier League games. If that wasn’t enough to make Jurgen Klopp smile, Middlesbrough have won only 1 match away from home all season in the Premier League, a victory which came at bottom of the table Sunderland.
However, one glance at Middlesbrough’s away fixtures this season, shows they have been difficult to beat at times, especially against the top clubs. Two standout results from their season are the draws at Arsenal and Manchester City, which highlights what Middlesbrough are capable of when they play well.
The last thing Liverpool want is to rely on is the result from the Arsenal match to go the right way. The Gunners are playing Everton at home, a team who have struggled away from home this season and its highly likely Arsenal will win that match.
Therefore, Liverpool must go out to win this game and attack Middlesbrough from the first whistle. Let’s not forget, this is a team who have won only 1 away match in the league all season and if they were to concede an early goal, would find it extremely difficult to get back into the match.
Liverpool were superb going forward last week at West Ham United and a repeat of that performance would surely be enough to get the win. The problems have come at Anfield, when playing against teams lower down the table who have been happy to defend in numbers.
The key for Liverpool will be Philippe Coutinho. The Brazilian playmaker adopted a central position in the match at the Olympic Stadium last Sunday and had a tremendous game. He created the first goal for Daniel Sturridge and scored two himself, in what was a comfortable victory.
With Middlesbrough sure to get players behind the ball, it will fall to Coutinho to use his creative skills and open them up during the 90 minutes. The Anfield faithful cannot afford to get restless if this takes a little time, as there is no way Steve Agnew is going to set his team out to attack and leave themselves open at the back.
There will be numbers behind the ball and the onus will be on Liverpool to break down the visitors. The longer the match stays 0-0 the more tense the atmosphere will become and Klopp is sure to tell his players to go out and press hard for the first goal early in the match.
The good news is the potential return to the team of Roberto Firmino. If fit, the Brazilian will come into the starting XI in place of either Divock Origi or Daniel Sturridge. The match will probably come too soon for Jordan Henderson and the England midfielder will not be risked. Middlesbrough are unlikely to make many changes from the team which lost to Southampton last week and Patrick Bamford, their goalscorer in that match, should keep his place in the team.
Despite having a poor record away from home, Middlesbrough have conceded less goals on the road than over half of the other teams in the Premier League, including Arsenal. Their problem has come when trying to score goals and they have managed just 10 in 18 games, with only Sunderland with a worse record.
With Alvaro Negredo their top scorer, Middlesbrough are sure to seek out their Spanish forward and Liverpool’s defence must be prepared to battle for the ball in the air. If Dejan Lovren can deal with the threat of Negredo, who is also top of Middlesbrough’s assists chart, you feel they will struggle to score a goal at Anfield.
Therefore, if Negredo is kept quiet, the match will rest on the ability of Liverpool to break down the Middlesbrough defence.
Much has been made of the need for Liverpool to get into the Champions League if the club want to continue to develop under Klopp. A home win, against an already relegated team, is all that’s required to ensure progress has been made this season. It sounds easy enough but the reality could be much different on the day if the game is not approached with the right mentality.
Come on Liverpool!