Reborn Liverpool ride luck to close in on top four
Southampton 0 Liverpool 2
It feels a long time since December 14, when Brendan Rodgers' Liverpool team succumbed 3-0 to Manchester United at Old Trafford, making the gap to their old rivals 10 points and posing the question whether it might all be a bit much for this ambitious young manager.
This morning, that gap to United, now two Premier League places ahead in fourth, has narrowed to two points and Liverpool are unbeaten in every one of the 10 league games they have played since Old Trafford.
At St Mary's yesterday, Rodgers looked like a long way from the man who was on the brink in December. In fact, there were moments when his young side played so well, he might just have forgotten how cold and how wet he was.
That was not to say that Rodgers' team dominated this game against a Southampton side who were unfortunate at times, especially in the denial of a first-half penalty for Filip Djuricic.
The possession count was heavily in favour of the home team. Yet where it mattered most, that difficult business of scoring goals, it was Liverpool who looked the more accomplished.
They were delivered victory by those two attacking sprites, Philippe Coutinho and Raheem Sterling. The first from Coutinho was a superb shot that pinged in off the bar of Fraser Forster. The second, from Sterling, was a counter-attacking opportunity grabbed in a heartbeat and executed with a lot of energy and a touch of joy.
The victory moved Liverpool into sixth place, above Tottenham Hotspur and a single point behind Southampton in fifth.
A tough outcome for the Saints, who have won just one of their last four league games and would dearly love to have beaten a club who relieved them of three of last season's first-team squad in the summer.
Manager Ronald Koeman was at his mellow best afterwards, choosing his words carefully about the decision of referee Kevin Friend not to award a penalty for a clear foul by Joe Allen on Djuricic. "OK, human people can do mistakes," he concluded. The Dutchman was also refreshingly open about his decision to drop Sadio Mane from the starting line-up for reporting for the pre-match meal 25 minutes late.
You got the impression that it was not the first time Mane had missed the main course and it was fair to say that when at last he did come on in the second half, he looked the biggest threat for Southampton.
It was an absorbing game and an absorbent pitch that stood up well under a deluge of rain that began around midday and was fairly unrelenting thereafter. Liverpool took the lead after two and half minutes.
Rodgers left out Daniel Sturridge, still not match-fit - the striker was on the bench. An injury to Mamadou Sakho meant that Dejan Lovren returned to the Liverpool starting XI and, goodness, how they despise their former defender at St Mary's.
Of the three former Southampton men in the Liverpool squad, Lovren was the recipient of peak booing from the home crowd, a consequence of his acrimonious departure in the summer. Adam Lallana was a few notches below that and Rickie Lambert, a substitute, was given as warm a welcome as any of the current squad.
Later, Rodgers would observe that there was precious little mention of any of the three former Saints in the match-day programme, an omission he declared as "sad". They got a brief acknowledgement in goalkeeper Kelvin Davis' column, but that was it. Who would have thought Rodgers was such an assiduous reader of football programmes? The water on the pitch affected both sides and the quick-fire little passing demons they have.
There was an early tackle by Emre Can on Southampton's Serbian winger Djuricic, who looked sharp and aggressive on his first start for the club since his loan move from Benfica, which precipitated the first penalty appeal. Friend was right to overlook that one.
Almost immediately, Liverpool scored. Lazar Markovic, another Serb to have come through Benfica, passed the ball inside to Coutinho and the Brazilian switched the ball to his right foot and powered a sweet shot in off the underside of Forster's bar.
In the fourth minute, Southampton should have had a penalty when Djuricic was fouled by Allen. Even on the ground, he managed to poke the ball to Eljero Elia, whose shot from close range was stopped by Simon Mignolet, and the general sense of outrage among the home support knew no limits.
Koeman's team controlled a lot of the game, but there were too few chances to show for it.
By contrast, Liverpool were not shy about getting the ball forward to Sterling quickly and it required a tackle from Jose Fonte, just on the right side of being legal, to stop him when Coutinho slipped the ball through on 31 minutes.
The third first-half penalty claim for Southampton was a handball by the unfortunate Lovren.
The ball struck his hand rather than the other way around, which may give some justification to Friend's decision to wave it on. By this time, the referee could, in the view of the home fans, do no right.
There was time for one more chance before half-time when Djuricic had another shot saved and Graziano Pelle launched himself, unsuccessfully, at the loose ball.
With the introduction of Mane before the hour, Southampton had more trickery and purpose in attack, but it was still a struggle to recall the chances they created. Rodgers brought on Sturridge for Lallana and the latter was largely booed off, although it should be pointed out that there were pockets of applause.
The second goal was a counter-attack that started with a loose pass from Morgan Schneiderlin, which Liverpool seized on brilliantly. From Coutinho to Alberto Moreno, a half-time substitute, the ball went down the left. Matt Targett, otherwise solid, made a mess of the clearance and Sterling arrived in the next wave to score.
That one was timed to break Southampton's resistance, which is a goalscoring habit all good teams have. (© Independent News Service)
Independent News Service