Mohamed Salah set a new Premier League scoring record as Liverpool sealed a place in next season’s Champions League with an emphatic victory over Brighton, and manager Jurgen Klopp believes the forward can “still improve so much”.
It was an impressive Liverpool performance on a perfect sunny afternoon at Anfield and Klopp’s side lingered long after the final whistle, soaking up the celebratory atmosphere with the Champions League final against Real Madrid to come on 26 May.
“Two weeks’ break is perfect for us,” said Klopp. “We will be ready for the final. This group of players really deserve it. They keep moving to the next level.”
Salah was the centre of attention as he was feted on his side’s home pitch after the match. There was the Golden Boot for Premier League’s top scorer to be presented, the club’s player of the year trophy too. The forward was clearly moved, and he shared the moment with his wife and young daughter.
It was his record goal that set the Reds on course to blowing Brighton away. The opener, a low finish from Dominic Solanke’s pass, was his 32nd goal of the campaign – the most by a player in a 38-game Premier League season.
Dejan Lovren doubled the lead by powerfully heading in Andrew Robertson’s cross and after the break it was more of the same – Liverpool continued to dominate.
Solanke smashed in his first goal for the club off the underside of the bar, having met Salah’s lay-off at the end of a strong run, while full-back Andrew Robertson also got his first Liverpool goal, sweeping in from close range with five minutes to play.
Liverpool would have slipped out of the top four had they lost and Chelsea beaten Newcastle, but they made sure the Blues’ result – a 3-0 defeat at St James’ Park – was irrelevant.
Victory meant the Reds matched their fourth-place finish of last season – they would have moved up to third had Tottenham not edged a thrilling 5-4 win at home to Leicester – while Brighton ended their first top-flight campaign since 1983 in the safety of 15th.
What a remarkable season it has been for Egypt forward Salah, who signed from Roma for £34m last summer.
Some doubted his ability to perform in England following his disappointing spell at Chelsea, but the goal that broke the Premier League record was his 44th in 51 games for Liverpool in all competitions this season.
Alan Shearer scored 31 Premier League goals for Blackburn in 1995-96, Cristiano Ronaldo did the same for Manchester United in 2007-08, and Luis Suarez netted 31 for Liverpool in 2013-14.
Shearer, for Blackburn in 1994-95, and Andy Cole, for Newcastle United in 1993-94, jointly hold the Premier League scoring record for a 42-match season – with 34 goals.
Perhaps that total is what Salah was thinking of when he was taken off just before Liverpool’s fourth, visibly disappointed. He left with Brighton at their most vulnerable, weary and exhausted from an afternoon living on their nerves against Liverpool’s attack.
Earlier on Sunday, Salah added the Premier League’s Player of the Season award to the two other major individual prizes he was won this year – the PFA Player of the Year and Football Writers’ Association Footballer of the Year awards.
But with the Champions League final against Real – winners of the past two tournaments – to come, the biggest piece of silverware is still to be settled.
Brighton beaten – but they will be back
Chris Hughton’s Brighton team can feel proud of what they have achieved this season. Many will have tipped them for relegation, but they have proved themselves more than capable of competing at English football’s elite level.
There was the impressive 3-0 victory at West Ham in October, March’s 2-1 home win over Arsenal at the end of a five-match unbeaten run, and a place in the FA Cup quarter-finals, where they lost to Manchester United.
Revenge over United came in the shape of a 1-0 win that confirmed their Premier League status on 4 May, and survival was always the only aim for Brighton this season – Hughton said it “meant everything”.
But perhaps there will be a slight regret over their end-of-season form. The 4 March victory over Arsenal put the Seagulls 10th in the table, after which they fell sharply over a run of seven matches without a win.
A 10th-place finish would have earned them £21.4m in prize money – the take for finishing 15th will instead be £11.6m. Regardless, the most important thing has been achieved – they will be back next season.
Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp told BBC Sport: “The boys had pressure on them – massive pressure for the last few weeks. It is fantastic to qualify for the Champions League. It’s a massive achievement. “We did it in an impressive manner. We tried to win the game from the first second. A point was enough but I have no real idea how to go for a point.
“We could have scored many more but I’m glad we didn’t. Brighton did not deserve that after a really good season.
“James Milner (who was left out of the squad) will be fine, just today was a bit early for him.
“I had no clue about (Salah’s) record. I took him off and then I heard that Tottenham had scored five – Harry Kane could have got them all! He has been brilliant and he can improve so much. He will score in the future, 100%.”
Brighton boss Chris Hughton told BBC Sport: “It was a very hard afternoon for us. We knew when we came here we would have to play at a very high level and stay in the game but they caused us so many problems.
“The only disappointment was that we didn’t keep possession well enough today. The season as a whole, we have been in nearly every game and we have had good performances against the big clubs.
“We find it hard playing the top six away from home but our season shows more good than bad.”