Liverpool can only blame themselves if they fail in Champions League race
Tuesday wins for Arsenal and Manchester City mean Liverpool's bid for fourth place must go to the final day.
Liverpool fans were hoping to avoid the tension such an outcome has brought, but in reality expecting already relegated Sunderland to beat Arsenal was asking too much.
It still took the Londoners 72 nervous minutes to take the lead against David Moyes' doomed side. That is probably what lies in wait for Liverpool when they play at home to Middlesbrough this Sunday.
In recent days, it has felt like such pressure was getting to the managers. Jurgen Klopp was critical of Southampton's differing approaches to their matches -- with Liverpool in a 0-0 draw and Arsenal's 2-0 win days later.
It was barely credible that Klopp expected Saints boss Claude Puel to change a plan which had already worked on Liverpool three times this season -- once in the league and in two EFL semifinal ties.
They were never going to play that way in a home game and Arsenal took full advantage. To show Klopp didn't have the monopoly on strange comments,Arsene Wenger also waded in on how teams should keep fighting until the final whistle on the final day.
The Frenchman was careful not to mention West Ham by name, though most people read between the lines and insisted Wenger was being critical of the Hammers after their 4-0 defeat at home to Liverpool.
That seemed unfair, since at 2-0 they could still have had a penalty. It wasn't given. Liverpool raced to the other end and made it 3-0 seconds later. For a team with nothing riding on the game, to expect a late comeback from that was churlish in the extreme.
Besides, for 30 minutes West Ham had been just as repressive and awkward opponents as Southampton had been for the Reds a week earlier.
Daniel Sturridge's fine opening goal made a real difference in Liverpool's performance. Confidence is crucial and nothing calms the nerves quite like scoring in a game that's expected to be tight.
City boss Pep Guardiola made the most lucid point in the whole debate. All the teams fighting for third and fourth place have faced sides with little or nothing to play for recently.
The three clubs chasing this spurious "achievement" should have done better in their previous games to avoid such potential pitfalls at the very end. It boils down to one simple question: If your team finishes fifth, can you honestly claim it isn't deserved?
Liverpool fans could have no argument. To wind up in that position means the Reds couldn't have beaten already relegated Middlesbrough on the final day. They would not have picked up a single victory in their last four home matches against Bournemouth, Crystal Palace, Southampton or Middlesbrough. The blame would lie entirely with them.
The same would apply to Arsenal. Even their final flourish of victories is not fooling some fans who failed to show up for Tuesday's match with Sunderland. It's what Arsenal always seem to do, year on year.
Fifth place for City is the least likely outcome but if they capitulated on the final day even their fans would admit it hasn't been the season they'd expected under Guardiola.
Although Liverpool have not finished as high as this for all bar one season this decade, the fans still hold the club accountable and expect better things. Had they been offered this finale last August, however, they'd have gladly taken it -- surely?
If the complaint from certain managers is that other clubs go on holiday too soon, it's hard to come up with a practical solution.
Interest in the season is already extended by the European places. The Champions League, for example, once only featured the champions, bizarre as that must seem. Relegation is also never really settled until April or even, as with Hull this season, mid-May.
Tinkering with the league's rules would only cause further confusion. Four teams to go down, not three? That would not be passed by the clubs; it would be akin to turkeys voting for Christmas.
Changing the points system to encourage attacking play -- nothing for a 0-0 draw, extra points for a certain number of goals -- is a fun hypothetical theory but would only further complicate people's appreciation of the still beautiful game. It could keep clubs motivated until later in the season, but at what cost?
No, Wenger and Klopp will just have to accept they've both benefited from opposition who weren't completely focussed on the task in hand. Arsenal have had their home game against an already relegated team. It's Liverpool's turn next.
Whichever club gets the better result will probably be the one who finish in fourth place. If that isn't Liverpool, there is only one direction the finger of blame can point: at themselves.
Steven Kelly is one of ESPN FC's Liverpool bloggers. Follow him on Twitter @SteKelly198586.