Now that the Premier League title has been won and the those departing the top flight have sealed their fate, all that is left to play for are the two remaining Champions League spots with Manchester City, Liverpool and Arsenal still in the running.
City look nailed on to win their remaining two games (West Brom (h) and Watford (a)) which would see them leapfrog Liverpool currently in third place.
Arsenal, who comfortably beat Stoke on Saturday night have Sunderland and Everton at home.
This left Liverpool with West Ham (a) and Middlesbrough (h); win both to guarantee CL football next season.
The trip to the Olympic stadium was defined as Jurgen Klopp’s most important game at Liverpool’s helm.
It was the game that we looked most likely to slip up in. Our own recent form hasn’t been anything to shout about.
The last three results have seen a disappointing draw against Southampton, a far from convincing win at Watford and pathetic defeat to Crystal Palace at Anfield hence the apprehension coming into the game in East London.
Add to that our woeful record versus West Ham in the last five meetings coupled with Klopp’s apparent unwillingness to change things up and nervousness was understandable.
Nothing could be done about two of those three issues but it remained to be seen if Klopp would bite the bullet and give Daniel Sturridge his first start since the ill-fated January. A start he has been deserving of.
Roberto Firmino gave the boss a nudge in the right direction by picking up an injury which left him back on Merseyside, leaving Klopp with no option but to start the injury-prone striker.
Given his recent promising cameos as a substitute, the news was met with much excitement and turned anxiety into confidence. I certainly felt much more assured when I saw his and Lallana’s name on the team sheet.
Coutinho was also moved into a deeper role at the tip of a diamond formation with Sturridge and Origi upfront and it was these two decisions that proved pivotal in a must win (oh, how I hate that phrase) game.
It was West Ham who started the sprightlier side having some initial success down Liverpool’s left side, but Liverpool had the first chance to go ahead when Matip’s header hit the crossbar from a corner in the eleventh minute. Neither Lovren nor Sturridge could get to the rebound to knock it in.
At the other end, Fernandes had West Ham’s first shot on target but Mignolet saved a minute later.
Liverpool probed as they usually do but it was clear that having Sturridge on the field added another dimension to the attack with his clever movement. And in the thirty-fifth minute his efforts paid off when Coutinho, relishing his new, deeper role, played a stunning pass to find Sturridge who danced past Adrian to put Liverpool ahead.
His run was timed to perfection to beat the offside trap and as we have seen time and again, kept his composure to calmly slot home.
The dance had returned much to the disgust of the West Ham fan in the white top. See Sturridge’s Instagram post below!
How Liverpool went into the break with their lead intact, however, will forever remain a mystery.
On the stroke of half-time Andre Ayew’s shot (from four yards out!) hit the post twice until Mignolet finally collected the ball after what seemed like an eternity.
We were almost our own worst enemy again; ruining any good work in a moment of defensive madness. But the timing of it was fantastic as it would be fresh in Klopp’s mind for a half-time lambasting.
It appeared to work as the Reds came out in the second-half with more intent.
Almost straight away, Adrian was called into triple action when he had to save Origi’s shot, watch Sturridge’s shot from the rebound blocked and save Lallana’s after that.
Seconds later, Wijnaldum’s shot was stopped and we somehow remained only a goal ahead.
At this point, Bilic realised he needed to change his tactics and formation fast to have any hope of salvaging something from the game.
Who’d have thought substitutions could be made before seventy-five minutes. Novel!
However, a double substitution and switch to a back four did little to stop the flow that Liverpool were finding. It was somewhat reminiscent of the pre-December form that annihilated defences. A sight we had been yearning to see for months.
Wijnaldum hit a glorious volley on fifty-seven minutes which hammered the crossbar only for it to fall to Coutinho who skipped past a few defenders and tucked it into the bottom corner. But you know what they say about two goal leads.
And just moments later, Liverpool got one of those “lucky breaks” when the referee either missed or was extremely lenient of Wijnaldum’s handball in the box. Unintentional, but handled all the same.
To add insult to West Ham’s injury, the resulting break led to Coutinho’s second from a Wijnaldum assist.
A potential 2-1 turned into 3-0 in a matter of seconds and the game was over. Origi tapped in a fourth for the Reds in the seventy-sixth minute to cap off a lovely afternoons work in London Town.
A comfortable win. When was the last time we were able to say that?
Three points, a return to third place, a successful negotiation of a potentially awkward and difficult fixture and a few demons laid to rest in the process.
Now we look forward to a home game against relegated Middlesbrough next Sunday to clinch fourth spot once and for all.
That’s if Sunderland don’t do us a favour before then by beating Arsenal at Emirates on Tuesday.
Unlikely, I know, but not entirely impossible. Stranger things have happened.
If it does, maybe we can actually enjoy the last game of the season. But in all reality, it will probably be another nail-biting, must win game in the continuing saga of CL qualification.
A saga that ends next week. For better or for worse.
We’re so very close now. Almost there. Not quite. Almost…