Liverpool 1: Agger 43'
Really the only pre-match talking point was the return of Lucas Leiva--back in the eleven for the first time since August, it seemed premature, but the emotional boost (even if it was tempered by concern about being too soon) was significant, and it would ideally bring stability to a midfield that's been lost at sea over the past few weeks. Joe Allen and Steven Gerrard remained, with Jonjo Shelvey brought into the fold as well and Jose Enrique shifting to leftback after an extended run in a more advanced role.
And while the Brazilian showed clear signs of rust, his impact on the side as a whole was pronounced. Gerrard was free to roam, Allen was more advanced than he's been all season, and there was a general sense of assuredness that the side displayed that's been lacking far too often. Problems remained in attack, as multiple breaks stalled once the hosts were in possession just outside the area, but aside from a few momentary lapses, Liverpool were completely in control.
Outside of Luis Suarez, Gerrard looked more threatening than he has all season, and even though the final product didn't look like coming, there was a general sense that there was actually going to be something in this. It nearly came from Jonjo Shelvey on the right, who crashed a drive off the far post, and later from Suarez, who hit the crossbar with a curling free kick from twenty yards out.
Thankfully the latter effort was followed immediately by the opener, as Glen Johnson latched onto possession going away from goal and sent one back into the area with his left foot. Daniel Agger got past his man and adjusted his body remarkably well, sending the header past Paolo Gazzaniga to give Liverpool the lead. It was a deserved reward for an impressive half of football, and meant Liverpool would head to the half with a one-goal cushion.
Southampton looked the more threatening for most of the second half even without putting an effort on goal, as Liverpool conspired to concede an equalizer with thoughtless possession and careless giveaways as the half wore on. Lucas thankfully intervened on countless occasions, but you could tell that many of the parties involved were struggling with tired legs and fatigued minds.
Liverpool still had their chances, with a number of breakaways and counters ruined by the same old problems--poor decision-making continues to mar what would otherwise be clear goalscoring opportunities, and chances to put what became a nervy match to bed far earlier. Raheem Sterling and Luis Suarez were again principally involved, and Jordan Henderson, who'd come on for the previously irreplaceable Joe Allen, combined with Sterling to waste one of the best of the lot.
The host's solidity at the back prevented Southampton from really testing Pepe Reina, however, and while at times it looked a scramble for Liverpool defensively there were no memorable chances for the guests. Jamie Carragher's appearance late gave Liverpool an extra body deep, and as has so often been the case, we saw a team huff and puff in the final third but ultimately come up with nothing. Thankfully this time it wasn't Liverpool.
It'd be hard to overstate just how much the return of Lucas meant for Liverpool, even if he was clearly off his game at times. His workrate can improve and his passing was marginal, but his positional sense and general combativeness--especially after such an extended layoff--was critical today. He displayed terrific awareness and timing, and perhaps most importantly for the side as a whole, he took what had become a seemingly suffocating weight off the shoulders of Joe Allen and Steven Gerrard, who were both improved despite looking tired and worn by the middle of the second half.
That Daniel Agger and Martin Skrtel were both excellent certainly helped, and both Glen Johnson and Jose Enrique were very solid. The latter impressed while resuming fullback duties, and the former was again very good both moving forward and defensively. Play at the other end was more up-and-down; Luis Suarez was predictably active and bothersome for the opposition defense (although he did earn a fifth booking that'll see him banned for the trip to West Ham next weekend), Raheem Sterling displayed strengths and growth edges from the flanks, and Jonjo Shelvey, while involved regularly prior to the final twenty minutes, looked about as you'd expect when asked to perform in a new(ish) role.
After a run of disappointing results, there can really be no complaining other than to say that Liverpool need goals and their regular eleven needs rest. They were very, very good at times today, and with reinforcements up top and added depth/recovery for the oft-used personnel, they can only get better. The past few weeks haven't been the most inspiring, but today highlighted what Liverpool are capable of, and to have some lingering disappointments despite the win is an indication that expecting more might not be completely delusional.
Or it is. Either way, Liverpool get the win, Lucas is back, and we can all agree that those are things that are unquestionably positive.