Every once in a blue moon, there is a Premier League match where the signs all point towards a low-scoring affair, but one player rises above the crowd, takes the game in grasp, and single-handedly elevates the proceedings into something worth watching, something worthy of the immense wealth permeating the Premier League.
This was not such a match.
With Liverpool’s closest rivals for a top four spot seemingly intent on throwing that Champions League berth away like a hot potato, this was a superb opportunity for Jürgen Klopp’s squad to take a significant step towards returning to center ring of European football’s cup competition circus. To take that step however, Liverpool would have to do something they seem to have forgotten how to do at the worst time: score against Southampton.
There was some positive news prior to the start of the match. Philippe Coutinho, who looked in some distress when he departed the field against Watford, was fit enough to start this crucial tie. With Divock Origi preferred over Daniel Sturridge up front, that meant the Anfield supporters got to see a pretty familiar starting lineup in the final phases of this 2016-17 season.
Coutinho’s availability may have been the highlight of this entire match. This was a truly dismal contest. With the home side in their traditional red and the visitors sporting a black/gray outfit that bore a passing resemblance to Liverpool’s 2012-13 away kit, it almost seemed at times that Liverpool were playing against a bizarro version of themselves.
For all the enterprise (or lack thereof) that Claude Puel’s side showed, Liverpool might as well have been playing against themselves. The visitors were, unsurprisingly, happy to sit back and soak up the pressure from a Liverpool mid/front six that has quite frankly been toothless for some time now. But for a wonder-strike from Emre Can in their last match, Klopp’s side have really struggled to create anything of note. And so it was that the first half devolved into a struggle between a very resistible force vs. a far-from-immoveable object.
So what happened in that first half?
Well, Lucas Leiva had some strong words for Manolo Gabbiadini while Klopp absolutely pulverized a plastic water bottle on the sideline. Other than that, this was as eventful as one of those real estate timeshare presentations that you sit through just to get $50 in free iTunes gift certificates. When you’re relying on Lucas and Joël Matip to make that incisive pass in the opponent’s half, something in the plan has gone wrong somewhere.
What about the second half? Surely there was something exciting there?
There was indeed some excitement in the second half, but little of it was for Liverpool supporters. Jack Stephens looked to have briefly thrown Liverpool a lifeline when he was, perhaps slightly unfairly, adjudged to have handled in the box. Robert Madley pointed to the box, and Anfield began to hope. Alas, James Milner, for so long Mr. Automatic when it comes to penalties, left it in reverse gear for this attempt. While decently struck, it was just a little bit too close to Fraser Forster, who parried and preserved the goalless stalemate.
With little left to lose, Klopp summoned the subsitutes. The sight of Adam Lallana and Daniel Sturridge coming on in place for Lucas and an ineffective Divock Origi gave the squad a perceptible boost, but by then Southampton were practically on autopilot, so composed were they in their task (and so rarely troubled by their hosts).
A late roll of the dice saw Marko Grujić come on for Gini Wijnaldum, and it was a gambit that almost paid off when the Serbian connected with a Milner cross to power a header goalwards, but Forster was once again up to the task. In addition to saving the penalty, the Southampton keeper did well to secure hopeful efforts from Coutinho and then Sturridge in the second half, but in truth his day consisted mostly of collecting floated passes from the Liverpool fullbacks.
Liverpool’s tour of sides with little to play for will stop in at West Ham next. On this form, any points from that contest are far from guaranteed.