Sunday 21 January 2018

Reds stay in hunt for title


Liverpool's English midfielder Steven Gerrard celebrates after scoring his team's third goal
Liverpool's English midfielder Steven Gerrard celebrates after scoring his team's third goal
Raheem Sterling of Liverpool scores his team's second goal past Artur Boruc of Southampton
SOUTHAMPTON, ENGLAND - MARCH 01: Steven Gerrard of Liverpool scores from the penalty spot
Rickie Lambert and Luke Shaw (L) of Southampton tackle Jordan Henderson of Liverpool

Paul Doyle at St Mary's

Liverpool's climb continues and it would be risky to bet against them going even higher. Another goal spree, thanks to Luis Suarez, Raheem Sterling and Steven Gerrard, plus a rare clean sheet, enabled Brendan Rodgers' team to take maximum points from a difficult assignment and leapfrog Manchester City and Arsenal. Only Chelsea are above Rodgers' swashbuckling side now.

This was not a flawless performance but a first title in 24 years seems a fantasy with an increasing chance of becoming reality.

For so long accused of wallowing in their glorious past, Liverpool arrived on the south coast of England as a club confident that a triumphant future is in sight. They went into the match knowing that Arsenal's defeat at Stoke meant victory would propel them to second place. That would really ignite belief that, straight after the retirement of Alex Ferguson, Liverpool are close to returning to the perch that was once their preserve.

Southampton's target was not as clear. Ensconced in mid-table, they had for several weeks seemed like a side meandering towards the end of the campaign. Perhaps the England squad that Roy Hodgson announced in midweek would provide extra stimulus, as the inclusion of Luke Shaw, the left-back who will turn 19 the day before the World Cup final, confirmed that Southampton now have as many players as Liverpool vying for a ticket to Brazil. Hodgson watched eight of his latest squad members start, while a ninth, Raheem Sterling, began on the bench as Rodgers brought in Joe Allen and tweaked his formation.

The adjustment did not dilute Liverpool's attacking intent. From the outset both sides fizzed with endeavour and enterprise. The visitors were within inches of taking the lead in the sixth minute as a rapid counter-attack caught Southampton undermanned at the back. Daniel Sturridge raced down the right and attempted to lay the ball across to the unmarked Suarez but Jose Fonte stretched to poke the ball behind just as the Uruguayan prepared to pounce.

With England's usual right-back, Glen Johnson, deployed on Liverpool's left, Shaw regularly galloped forward to torment Jon Flanagan, though it was Adam Lallana who went down in the box under a challenge from Flanagan in the 13th minute, only for the referee, Lee Probert, to reject Southampton's pleas for a penalty.

Two minutes later Liverpool's scoring machine clicked back into gear. Suarez had not netted for five matches before this but, after initiating an attack, he benefited from fortunate ricochets off two defenders before firing low into the net from 16 yards to plunder his 24th goal of the campaign.

Suarez, playing more centrally than in recent weeks, could have confirmed the resumption of normal service three minutes later but curled a free-kick over from the edge of the area.

Southampton forced Liverpool on to the back foot for most of the remainder of the first half. Rickie Lambert slashed over from 18 yards in the 25th minute. Six minutes later Lambert knocked a cross down to Lallana, whose scuffed close-range shot rolled past Simon Mignolet but bounced out off the post.

Artur Boruc then had to save from Suarez but Southampton would have gone into the break level if not for a terrific save by Mignolet. After a run and cross by Lallana and a dummy by Lambert, Jay Rodriguez let fly from eight yards, only for the Belgian goalkeeper to turn the low shot away with one hand.

Southampton's forward momentum continued at the start of the second period. Gerrard, stationed in his now-familiar berth in front of the Liverpool defence, was struggling to keep track of Lallana, who tested Mignolet again in the 49th minute.

Rodgers introduced Sterling in place of Philippe Coutinho in the 56th minute and hardly imagined the youngster would score with his first touch. Yet after nimble interplay on the right, Suarez delivered a low ball into the box and Sterling sidefooted into the net from 10 yards.

Sturridge and Suarez could have inflicted further damage before the latter won a penalty in stoppage-time. Gerrard converted emphatically.


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