Sunday 23 September 2018

'Egyptian King' rules supreme for Liverpool

Southampton 0 Liverpool 2

Liverpool's Mohamed Salah. Photo: Reuters
Liverpool's Mohamed Salah. Photo: Reuters

Sam Dean

After all the talk about Virgil van Dijk's return to Southampton, all the conjecture about how he would cope with the fury and the boos, it took little more than six minutes for his performance to be reduced to nothing more than a sideshow to the main event.

Call it the Mohamed Salah and Roberto Firmino effect. Liverpool's attacking duo rendered irrelevant the furore over Van Dijk in as little time as it takes for them to carve open a vulnerable defence.

Liverpool's Roberto Firmino. Photo: Getty Images
Liverpool's Roberto Firmino. Photo: Getty Images

And, as a bewildered Southampton back-line will attest, that is not very long at all.

Twice in the first half, Salah and Firmino flicked the switch, and twice the home side's defenders were left staring at each other as if they had been bewitched.

Southampton had not even performed badly in that first half. Mauricio Pellegrino's side had enjoyed a six-game unbeaten run for a reason and there was genuine enterprise and creatively for long spells in those opening exchanges.

But Southampton do not have a Firmino, and they certainly do not have a Salah - the man crowned the 'Egyptian King' by Liverpool's besotted supporters.

Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp. Photo: Getty Images
Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp. Photo: Getty Images

Between them, those two have now plundered 49 goals this season.

It should have been at least 50, if not more, by the time a one-sided second half was brought to a close.

And so Liverpool returned to winning form with a performance that was as comfortable, in the end, as they could have hoped for.

The clean sheet will be a source of great encouragement for Jurgen Klopp - as will the fact that Van Dijk delivered a classy, controlling performance for probably the first time since his £75m move.

Liverpool's Georginio Wijnaldum stays ahead of Southampton's Oriol Romeu. Photo: Getty Images
Liverpool's Georginio Wijnaldum stays ahead of Southampton's Oriol Romeu. Photo: Getty Images

"He dealt with the situation fantastically," said the Liverpool manager, whose side are now just two points behind second-placed Manchester United.

"We had a little chat before the game, asking him what he thought. I did not want to make him nervous, but obviously he wasn't."

For Southampton, who lost all of their fight and optimism as soon as Salah had rolled home Liverpool's second, this was a miserable end to a painful weekend.

Victory over West Bromwich Albion last week had improved the mood, but wins for both Huddersfield Town and Newcastle United respectively leave Pellegrino's side in the relegation zone once more.

Liverpool's Virgil van Dijk of Liverpool. Photo: Getty Images
Liverpool's Virgil van Dijk of Liverpool. Photo: Getty Images

"We had to be more brave," said the Southampton manager, whose team barely mustered a shot after half-time.

"You can be losing, but you can show spirit to try and bounce back, and try until the end. The biggest defeat was the way we played the second half."

The first chorus of the inevitable boos for Van Dijk were still ringing around St Mary's when Firmino side-footed the visitors into the lead.

The world's most expensive defender's clearance led to Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain spinning the ball towards the frightened Southampton back-line, where Wesley Hoedt promptly slashed at nothing but air.

Salah was in, with Firmino waiting alongside him, and the rest was as inevitable as it was clinical.

To their credit, Southampton reacted by going on the offensive. Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg forced Liverpool goalkeeper Loris Karius into a sprawling save, while James Ward-Prowse twice went close at the back post.

Karius, though, was equal to his efforts, as he was to a powerful header from Guido Carrillo.

One can only imagine the thoughts of Firmino and Salah as they watched this sloppiness take hold.

Long balls were allowed to bounce in dangerous area, while routine clearances were shanked into the stands.

Joel Matip, in particular, looked in an especially uneasy mood at centre-back, while left-back Andrew Robertson was exposed on more than one occasion.

"Not brilliant," was Klopp's assessment of that challenging period.

Not to worry, though, for Salah and Firmino soon combined again to double the lead.

Gobbled

Having gobbled up the first goal from a Salah assist, Firmino then turned provider in the most spectacular style by flicking a sublime pass into the Egyptian's path as he darted into the Southampton penalty box.

Much like with the first goal, there was no doubt about what would happen next. It only took one moment, but Salah had his 29th of the season.

"One mistake, and one amazing one-two, and they finished the game," Pellegrino said.

"I love them because of their skills, their attitude," said Klopp of the duo.

"Their work-rate is outstanding. They profit from our style of play as well. They play in areas where they like to have the ball.

"But, in this strong league, you cannot be third without fantastic players. They are two of them."

© Daily Telegraph, London

Telegraph.co.uk

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