Liverpool and Chelsea seized the final two Champions League places in a dramatic end to the Premier League season on Sunday, leaving Leicester heartbroken for the second consecutive campaign.
With Manchester City already guaranteed a third title in four years and Manchester United certain to finish second, the focus was on the battle for the remaining two places in the top four.
Heading into the 38th and last round of fixtures, just one point separated Chelsea in third place from Leicester in fifth.
Two Sadio Mane goals gave Liverpool a 2-0 win at home to Crystal Palace, while Thomas Tuchel’s Chelsea were indebted to a late Leicester collapse against Tottenham at the King Power Stadium.
Chelsea lost 2-1 at Aston Villa but were saved by the 4-2 defeat for Brendan Rodgers’ FA Cup winners.
Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp said on Sunday that sealing a place in next season’s Champions League on the day fans returned was a dream come true.
Liverpool’s 10-game unbeaten run to finish the campaign saw them finish third behind Manchester City and Manchester United.
Fans were shut when Liverpool ended a 30-year wait to win a league title last season due to coronavirus restrictions and the 10,000 crowd on Sunday was the biggest for at Anfield for 14 months.
“Finishing the season in third is incredible. I can’t believe it. Credit to the boys, I can’t believe how it worked out in the last few weeks,” said Klopp.
“Outstanding, (the) best I could’ve dreamt of. We wanted this feeling, this game, this atmosphere.”
Klopp could afford the luxury of withdrawing Georginio Wijnaldum to a standing ovation on his final Liverpool appearance late on after Sadio Mane struck twice.
Wijnaldum is out of contract and has been strongly linked with a move to Barcelona.
“Gini Wijnaldum is leaving the club and we all love him to bits,” added Klopp.
“We will miss him so much, with football it’s normal that people leave, but I will miss him so much.”
Wijnaldum won both the Champions League and Premier League during his five seasons at Liverpool.
“I’m fighting against tears right now,” said the Dutch international.
“I have to start a new adventure. I knew I went to a big club. I remember that I was sitting in the living room and the manager said when I come to Liverpool we would win prizes. I am happy it went that well.
“It would have been really painful to leave the club without any.”
Thomas Tuchel admitted Chelsea were “lucky” to qualify for the Champions League.
Tuchel’s side were on the brink of missing out on a top four finish in the Premier League in the closing stages of a dramatic conclusion to the season.
They trailed at Villa Park as goals from Bertrand Traore and Anwar El Ghazi were followed by Ben Chilwell’s strike for Chelsea.
With top four rivals Liverpool and Leicester both winning as the clock ticked down, Chelsea were heading for disaster. But Spurs came to the Blues’ rescue.
“We had enough chances. We did not score, conceded two cheap goals and it was a defeat in the end. We are lucky to escape today,” Tuchel said.
“We did not hit the target, the last touch was not precise enough. It was a very strong last half an hour and we had two big chances to score. We fought, tried everything but forgot to score.”
Despite a rocky run of three defeats in their last four games in all competitions, Tuchel is confident the boost of finishing in the top four will be a major lift ahead of Saturday’s Champions League final against Manchester City.
If Chelsea had missed out on the top four, they would have had to beat the Premier League champions in Porto to qualify for Europe’s elite club competition.
That pressure has been lifted and Tuchel said: “A loss never feels good but tomorrow I will take a lot of satisfaction. We reached the objective and congratulations to everyone.
“We are still a young team, players fighting for their first trophies and now we arrive in Porto with full confidence.”
Leicester spent more days in the top four than any other club this season, but for the second consecutive year they fell away in the final weeks of the campaign to miss out on the riches and prestige of Champions League football.
“It’s hugely disappointing for us. We fought so hard all season. I always said you’re judged after 38 games and unfortunately we couldn’t quite make it,” Rodgers said.
“I have nothing but pride and admiration for the players. They’ve constantly had things go against them with injuries.
“If you look at the importance of the players out today, we were able to take it down to the last game and the last 15 minutes.”
Rodgers refused to condemn his players for failing to finish the job, pointing to their FA Cup final triumph last weekend as proof of their progress in his reign.
“When we started work together we were mid-table and just over two years later we’re challenging the elite and won the FA Cup for the first time in our history and we’re on the right path without the resources of other teams,” Rodgers said.
“I have nothing but pride. The ownership have given me amazing support. The players have given me their heart and souls every day.
“I’m so disappointed for them we couldn’t get over the line.”
Sealing a place in UEFA’s inaugural third-tier competition continues Tottenham’s run of qualifying for European football, but outgoing interim boss Mason says that does not constitute success this season.
“First of all, we wanted to be in the Champions League,” said Mason, who will be returning to his role in the academy. “I’ve said all along, it’s disappointing where we are in this moment.”
“It’s very disappointing for the football club. It’s important we’re in Europe, not the European competition we’d want to be in.”
Mikel Arteta warned his Arsenal squad on Sunday they need to be “much better” next season as they face a first campaign without European football in 25 years.
Arteta’s side finished a dismal season with a 2-0 win against Brighton thanks to Nicolas Pepe’s second half double at the Emirates Stadium.
It was not enough to secure European qualification as they settled for a second successive eighth place finish in the Premier League.
At best, Arsenal would have qualified for the new Europa Conference League, reflecting the reduced status currently endured by the north London club.
In his first full campaign in charge, Arteta has been unable to reverse the slide that has continued since the final years of Arsene Wenger’s reign.
Arsenal did finish with five consecutive league wins, their best run in the competition since October 2018.
“When I was with the team a few months ago and with them now, regardless of the results, we are in a much better place and will be in a much better place and can hopefully take the club where we want,” Arteta said.
“It is frustrating because last season with 61 points we (would have finished) fifth, now we are eighth and that is the step that we have to identify.
“The level has gone so high so the only way to do it is to be much better next season and much more consistent and this is the challenge ahead of us.”
Some have suggested a season out of Europe for the first time since 1995-96 could be a good thing as Arteta looks to rebuild, but the Gunners boss does not agree.
“It wasn’t in our hands. We tried to do our best, but it was not enough,” he said.
“This club deserves trophies and Champions League and we haven’t managed to do that in very challenging circumstances.
“We have tried to stick together and do our best, it’s not been enough. Now we have to be very critical of ourselves and prepare for next season in the best possible way.”
With AFP inputs
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