Liverpool 2 Firmino 5’, Salah 42’
Scoring goals seemingly at will has been Liverpool’s party trick for so much of this season that it’s sometimes easy to forget that Liverpool’s other party trick has been conceding silly goals from a position of strength (Note: it’s actually very difficult to forget the conceding-silly-goals-from-a-position-of-strength thing). Seems like just yesterday that Liverpool were cruising while two goals ahead at St. Mary’s, only for a certain Sadio Mané to completely derail that train.
Not today, Satan.
Having been forced to settle for a stalemate in last week’s contest against another top four contender, Liverpool took on a side closer to the bottom of the table this weekend. On paper, Southampton do not have the appearance of a squad that should be entangled in a messy relegation scrap - yet here they are, with Mauricio Pellegrino undoubtedly feeling the heat in the wake of Newcastle United’s surprise victory over the other United earlier in the day.
Liverpool started the match with their default forward trio of Salah-Mané-Firmino, while elsewhere on the pitch Joël Matip (instead of Dejan Lovren) was partnered with Virgil van Dijk and Emre Can took the armband (perhaps in anticipation of being suspended for the upcoming Champions League clash with Porto). Loris Karius once again would have the opportunity to solidify his claim to being the first choice keeper.
Typically, Liverpool are ones to start the match at 100 mph, and so they did here. Southampton, however, matched the visitors for tempo, and both sides snapped at their opponents’ heels and ankles, looking to force an early error. Trent Alexander-Arnold launched a searching ball that eluded Salah in the opening phases, while on the other side of the pitch Ward-Prowse and Højbjerg showed great enterprise to force a corner, which came to nought for the hosts.
Moments later, Liverpool seized the advantage. A quick, decisive throw from Karius set Oxlade-Chamberlain running, and the former Arsenal man found an accelerating (and onside) Salah. Not in the best position, Wesley Hoedt threw a leg out to try and intercept, but did so in vain. With the panicked defenders focusing on Salah, the Egyptian laid it off for Firmino, who sent the ball past McCarthy with a minimum of fuss.
Southampton came back strongly, with Ward-Prowse, Tadić, and Bertrand all looking lively on the flanks, while in the middle, Mario Lemina was proving to be a very tricky customer for Liverpool’s midfield. The 24-year old from Gabon was a key many of Southampton’s better moves going forward, while also working hard to disrupt Liverpool on the counter once the Saints lost possession.
The hosts looked certain to equalize, but Karius played a big part in denying them that opportunity. The German keeper had number of eye-catching saves in the first half, first denying Højbjerg from close range after a searching ball was floated just above Robertson’s head. Thirty minutes into the match, steady hands were required from Karius again as he was forced to defuse an attempt from Carrillo, and then moments later another header from Ward-Prowse. It was not a great sequence for Liverpool’s back four, but an impressive few minutes for the keeper.
With Southampton unable to sustain the same degree of intensity over the 45 minutes, opportunities began to present themselves for Liverpool. Good interplay between Firmino and Robertson allowed the fullback to break through on the left, and while his low cross eluded McCarthy, it also eluded everyone in a Liverpool shirt.
With half-time just around the corner, and Southampton still pushing forward, looking for that equalizer, Liverpool landed their sucker punch. Matip, in enemy territory, smartly found Salah, who initiated a one-two with Firmino. There was a great deal for the Brazilian to do, but he summoned a moment of magic to backheel a pass into Salah’s path, instantly nullifying the three defenders. It was an easy finish for Salah to make it 2-0, and that’s how the score stood at the half.
After the restart, Liverpool braced for another Southampton onslaught, and the more pessimistically minded supporters might have flashbacks to that 2-3 capitulation at this very ground. The onslaught, however, never came. Perhaps the fact that Sadio Mané was wearing a Liverpool (instead of Southampton) shirt this time around might have had something to do with that, but Pellegrino’s side seemed to slowly deflate over the course of the next 45 minutes.
Boufal was brought on for an ailing Lemina, while later on, Shane Long - usually an awkward customer for Liverpool defenses to deal with - was summoned in place of Ward-Prowse. The heart and the running were there for the hosts, but they also appeared to have lost the bite and verve that they showed in the game’s opening minutes.
“We didn’t show what we are in the second half,” said Pellegrino after the match. “Overall the anxiety was really high, we were not calm and gave the ball away all of the time.”
Southampton’s malaise meant that Liverpool were not punished for squandering their chances in the second half. The visitors showed they could be sloppy as well after the restart, and chances for all three of the forwards went begging. Luckily, there would be no shock fightback this time. Instead, manager Jürgen Klopp would have the luxury of bringing on not one, but two, former Southampton players in Lallana and Lovren to stretch their legs before Champions League action resumes in a few days.
With too many former Saints on the pitch to boo, the home crowd were seemingly spoiled for choice, and decided to close up shop instead. There are some awkward months ahead for Southampton.