West Brom 1 Rondon 14'
Liverpool 1 Ibe 23'
While not entirely without consequence, this was a season finale that was always going to be played in the shadow of coming attractions. It was not just the distraction of a big cup final in Europe - an already tantalizing prospect with a UEFA Champions League berth as an added incentive - on the minds of supporters, but also the sense that Phase II of the Klopptimization process would now begin in earnest.
Though the club's league form has been inconsistent since Jürgen Klopp's mid-season appointment, there has been a palpable uptick in energy and optimism, and perhaps most importantly, a sense of forward progression since the new manager's arrival. There is also a feeling among observers that the combination of a productive transfer window and a full pre-season will allow Klopp to take another big step towards realizing his vision for how he wants this club to play.
And so, to the surprise of absolutely no one, it was yet again a mixed cast of role players and youth that took the stage at the Hawthorns against Tony Pulis' West Bromwich Albion side. If nothing else, the team sheet all but confirmed that the Liverpool side that faced Chelsea will be the side that lines up against Sevilla in Basel. With not a tremendous amount at stake, this would be, for the starters, a final audition for a meatier role in Liverpool 2016-17: The Kloppening.
With the younger players clearly eager to show what they can do, it was a curiously controlled, almost methodical, start from both sides. Liverpool showed good composure to maintain possession, at least in the middle of the pitch, but , with their most creative players shelved for the Europa League final, the visitors struggled to retain that possession and craft anything of note in the opposition's final third.
The breakthrough came on 13 minutes, and it was for West Brom. An unfortunate miscue from Joe Allen - who had a serviceable but unremarkable outing today - gifted possession to Jonathan Leko. The 17 year-old Leko danced past a crowd of criminally immobile Liverpool players before cleverly finding Rondon, who beat Adam Bogdán at the near post. It would not be the last impressive contribution from Leko on this day, and West Brom's supporters should allow themselves some measure of excitement around the young man's future.
With so much youth and inexperience in their starting lineup, it would be naive to expect a barnstorming performance from the visitors, but Liverpool supporters able to swallow the bad with the good will have come away from the last few matches of the league season with at least a sense of cautious optimism. There were some familiar mistakes and complaints on display - Jordon Ibe and Brad Smith did their fair share of running straight into traffic - but on the whole they acquitted themselves well against a veteran side.
Cameron Brannagan, while not blessed with blazing speed, showed good close control and vision. The young midfielder (who, I'm still convinced, was secretly cloned from Ian Rush hair samples collected in the trainer's room) should be pleased with his account of himself today, and almost equalized for the visitors when he picked up the ball just outside the West Brom box, then did some dancing of his own before shooting too close to the keeper.
Mere moments later, however, Liverpool did have their equalizer. Ibe, given acres of space to run on the right, accepted the invitation and charged into the box before cutting inside to find the soft spot amid a swarm of defenders. Ibe, who has been somewhat overshadowed by his youthful colleagues of late, unleashed a superb left-footed shot that eluded an outstretched Ben Foster. It was an eye-catching way to open his Premier League account, and one senses Ibe will get more opportunities to in the offseason and next season to prove his development has not stalled.
In an ideal world, this equalizer would signal the commencement of a throw-caution-to-the-wind, end-to-end display of unfettered attacking intent. Alas, this is not an ideal world, as Spurs fans will attest. The contest became increasingly chippy, and the performances from both sides grew gradually more disjointed. Liverpool edged the remainder of the first half, but tellingly, Ibe's goal was the last shot on target in the entire match, for both teams.
After the restart, because this is Liverpool, there were a number of scares from set pieces. Rondon connected with a header after a dangerous free kick was lofted into the Liverpool box, but the ball came off a post and no West Brom player was able to capitalize on the rebound. Bogdán did not particularly distinguish himself in this match, other than perhaps proving that he has luck in abundance. Rondon had a number of other close-range opportunities to put the home side in the lead, but amazingly, and thanks to some comical sequences from both sets of players, no further damage was done.
There was still time for some developments of interest to Liverpool supporters. Jordan Henderson and Danny Ings, both long absent due to injury, took the field in the 64th minute for Allen and Ibe respectively. The sight of both will be a welcome development for Liverpool, and though neither is likely to play a very large role in the Europa League final, the two players may yet be key elements for Klopp's 2016-17 campaign. Henderson almost had the chance to snatch a win at the death, but Benteke was unable to center the ball after doing well to ride a challenge and getting wide open on the right.
The points were shared at the final whistle, and Liverpool finished eighth in the league. Not a position that anyone at the club will be comfortable with in the long term, but as mentioned in the beginning, there is little doubt that there is much, much more to come from Klopp's men.