After another clutch performance against a dogged opponent, Liverpool take firm control of their own destiny and go into the final match of the season in a top four spot.
Below, we take a look at some of the winners and losers on this important night, and take a moment to reflect on the massive achievement the Reds are in the process of undertaking.
Big Nat Phillips: Assuming Liverpool go out and buy a new centre-back this summer, Nat Phillips will likely be no higher than fifth on the depth chart by the time next season rolls around. Nevertheless, he will have earned that spot, and the trepidation fans felt when his name popped up on the team sheet earlier in the year should have all but evaporated.
Growing into the role — and supported by a more coherent central midfield — Phillips has simply been playing really well in recent weeks. The team has released the throttle on its press once more, forcing the Bolton Baresi to do lots of open field defending, and, with the exception of the first leg of the Real Madrid tie, he has dealt with it beyond any expectation.
The goal tonight — he nearly had a brace, belting a volley inches over the bar in the first half — and assist at United are nice bonuses, but it is defending his own box that is Phillips’ forté, and only Burnley’s Ben Mee completes more clearances per 90 minutes than the 24-year old, who also boasts the 13th highest aerial win percentage in the league.
If the Reds do make it into next seasons Champions League, it will in no small part be because Nat Phillips has risen to the occasion and probably tried to head it.
A Winning Run: Seven wins and two draws from the last nine means that Liverpool, are entering the final match of the season on a 97-point pace. They have done so while largely playing their fifth and eighth choice centre-backs, who have in no way been helped out by a frontline that in the same run has continued to underperform their expected goals. It is a remarkable achievement that should be regarded as such whether or not they make it over the finish line on Sunday.
Midfield Partners: There hasn’t been much continuity anywhere behind the front three in this year’s Liverpool squad, as injuries have forced midfielders into the backline and backup midfielders into less than ideal midfield structured far more often than anybody would have wanted.
Ever since Fabinho and Thiago have been partnered in midfield, though, the Reds have looked an entirely different unit. The pair complement each other incredibly well, regardless of who features alongside them, combining for 30 tackles and 18 interceptions in the seven wins they’ve played together, all the while making the side far more resistant to and able to pass around an opposition press.
The stability offered by Fabinho has also allowed Thiago to be much more adventurous on the ball and it is no accident the Spaniard has been so much more influential in recent weeks, when he’s not been tasked with doing both jobs.
Georginio Wijnaldum is increasingly looking like his days on Merseyside are numbered, but one should be excited at the prospect of this midfield pairing playing a full season together, particularly when backed up by the commanding leadership of Jordan Henderson.
Festung Turf Moor: I know we always fret about going there, but in the Premier League era, Liverpool have now won six and lost a single game at Burnley’s home ground. It’s never comfortable, by virtue of the Clarets brutish playing style, but Turf Moor is simply not an arena the Reds leave with less than three points all that often, and fans should make it a habit going into the next trip up north with more confidence.
What Happens Next
It all comes down to this. Liverpool host Crystal Palace and former manager, the retiring Roy Hodgson, on Sunday, and it’s for all the marbles. Win, and, assuming Tottenham don’t actively attempt to lose by record numbers, Champions League participation is secured. Even a failure to win could see the Reds pull it out, but relying on other results is never particularly smart, and certainly not pleasant. So. Do another win, Reds.
Narratives abound. Fingers crossed we come out on top and make this cursed season a success after all.