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Apr 25, 2010

Clarets relegated as Reds run riot

So, farewell then. As the cameramen collected the clichéd stock shots of fans munching mournfully on pies and rain and mist descending over the Pennines, the inevitable happened. Burnley were relegated. Unlike the financially imperilled pair of Portsmouth and Hull, they depart in credit, on the pitch and in the bank.

• Burnley 0-4 Liverpool

"We were trying to do something that was impossible in many people's eyes, but we were close to that impossibility," said the manager, Brian Laws. The unlikely may have become the unachievable the moment Owen Coyle decamped to Bolton or in the games when substandard defending was more telling than enterprising passing, but, without implying any criticism of the Turf Moor groundsman, Burnley's is not a level playing field.

The £15,000-per-week wage ceiling should spare them the hardship of administration and a precipitous decline down the divisions. Prudence is an underestimated quality but Burnley have displayed it in "the greed is good league". They have also shown a capacity to astound, most notably in the 1-0 win over Manchester United, before reality made an unwanted return to East Lancashire. The dream, forged by nostalgia for distant deeds and comparative penury, incorporating stylish football played by essentially limited footballers, played in front of wooden seats in raucous stands, has died.

"There was a gulf in quality," admitted Laws, discussing Steven Gerrard's superlative second goal. As an overall assessment, that is being logical, not defeatist. Between them, the midfielders and forwards Laws fielded probably earn less than the Liverpool captain; Jose Reina, who produced a fine save to thwart Jack Cork at 0-0, has a wage packet that could cover Burnley's entire defence as well as their goalkeeper, Brian Jensen.

Quality costs. In an insipid first-half display, admittedly, Liverpool displayed little. Burnley, with an encouraging opening and a depressing ending, contrived to epitomise their season within 90 minutes.

Laws was both dignified and defiant as he departed the division. "It's a horrible feeling, but the players should be very proud of themselves with what they have achieved this year. It's one of those feelings you get in the pit of your stomach." It was his 13th defeat in 16 games at the helm, but the manager insisted: "I'll be here next season."

Quite what next season brings for their conquerors is another matter. Liverpool still trail Tottenham, Aston Villa and Manchester City with two games to go, but Champions League football is not impossible. "After four goals away and a clean sheet, you have to have confidence," added Benitez. "I think we can get three points in each game and have a chance to finish in the top four but we know it will be very difficult."

The Europa League may offer a bigger chance of success, though Dirk Kuyt could miss Thursday's rematch with Atletico Madrid with a calf problem. "Maybe we can finish with a trophy but we were expecting something more," added Benitez.

That the expectation of three points was realised at Turf Moor was due to Gerrard. Without reaching the stratospheric heights of which he is capable, he roused Liverpool from mediocrity. Frustration appeared his abiding emotion in the first half, when a shot was inadvertently booked by referee Phil Dowd and when a scything challenge on Wade Elliott brought a deserved caution. In the second, he was the difference between comfortable victory and sterile mediocrity.

Twice he combined with Alberto Aquilani for goals, though it would be overstating the underused Italian's involvement to describe them as two assists. But the costliest and best midfielder made for a valid comparison. Aquilani occupied what could be termed "the Gerrard role".

The £20 million man can't bring the dynamism that characterises Gerrard's game, and it was unsurprising that the Liverpool captain started to advance beyond the Italian. It brought the breakthrough: after a one-two with Aquilani, Gerrard veered left and then cut infield before his shot took a wicked deflection off Leon Cort to deceive Brian Jensen.

That was fortunate. The second was fantastic, Gerrard unleashing an unstoppable first-time shot. "It was the kind of goal Steven can score," added Benitez. "It was a fantastic strike. He has quality and he has power; I'm really pleased for him." Gerrard's supplier, albeit accidentally, was Aquilani, who slipped while controlling the ball. They were an undistinguished brace of assists, but they were a contribution nonetheless.

Maxi Rodriguez finished adeptly after Yossi Benayoun, on for the injured Dirk Kuyt, found him with an incisive pass. Another replacement, Lucas Leiva, picked out Ryan Babel, who had beaten the Burnley offside trap and just defeated Jensen.

It brought a cruelty to proceedings with a scoreline that did not reflect the game. But, as Burnley have discovered, the Premier League can be cruel.

MAN OF THE MATCH: Steven Gerrard - The only real candidate. He has quietly returned to form over recent weeks and was too good for Burnley.

BURNLEY VERDICT: The club's destination is, sadly, sorted, but many of their players are rather more unsure of their future. Burnley have 10, including an entire defence, out of contract in the summer. They are unlikely to attract employers in the top flight, but a couple of others might: Steven Fletcher led the line valiantly, as he has done for much of the campaign, and struck the post: he could easily have several more goals and a reunion with Coyle might not be far-fetched. Jack Cork, who has been borrowed from Chelsea, acquitted himself well in the midfield. If Chelsea are serious about granting more opportunities to younger players, he could figure there.

LIVERPOOL VERDICT: This was their first away win in the Premier League in 2010, which accounts for their difficulties in the pursuit of fourth place. Even by scoring four goals, Liverpool still only have as many on their travels as Wolves and Wigan. Uninspired initially, at least they displayed a ruthlessness after getting the opener. Rodriguez provided another encouraging performance while the young Spaniard Daniel Sanchez Ayala, starting for just the second time in the Premier League, helped keep a clean sheet, despite a couple of awkward moments.