Results elsewhere can sometimes have a negative impact on performance. Knowing a rival has slipped up can put pressure on you, which comes from knowing you have been given a golden chance to capitalise on a slip up. When Manchester United were unexpectedly beaten by Newcastle United in the game that preceded Liverpool’s, that pressure was on. It was also applied to our opponents, Southampton, who needed to match Newcastle to escape the drop zone. Both sides needed to make a statement and perform. Both sets of fans were expecting it. Both had too much to lose and so much to gain. No pressure then.
Jurgen Klopp has never been one to bow to pressure though and his team selection reflected that. After a very good performance against Spurs last week Dejan Lovren was dropped to the bench in favour of Joel Matip. Jordan Henderson also made way with Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain being chosen ahead of him to start at his old stomping ground. Also returning to their former club were Virgil Van Dijk, who was guaranteed a frosty reception after leaving in such acrimonious circumstances, and Sadio Mane.
Mauricio Pellegrino is familiar with Liverpool, having played and coached at Anfield before finally getting the top job at St. Marys’. He was never going to take this game lightly given the position his new club are in and reacted by making one change to the side that beat West Brom 3-2 at The Hawthornes last week. Pierre Emile Hojbjerg was brought in in place of Sofiane Boufal, who would have to make do with a place on the bench. Jack Stephens looks to be hand-picked successor of Van Dijk at Southampton and has performed above expectations lately, scoring three goals in his last three starts for the Saints. He partnered Wesley Hoedt in centre half today. New boy and club record signing Guido Carillo was given a starting berth up front.
Southampton started the game looking rather edgy and nervous. Wesley Hoedt seemed to personify the nerves of the team the most, giving away the ball on the edge of his own area for Roberto Firmino to run onto. He pulled Firmino down before any real danger could occur and was lucky to avoid giving away a free kick in a dangerous area. On six minutes he wasn’t so lucky. Trent Alexander-Arnold played a ball forward from the right back position which looked like Hoedt would comfortably deal with. However, he completely miscued his clearance, and Mohamed Salah was onto it like a flash. He advanced on the opposition box and squared through Stephens’ legs. Firmino ran onto it before Mane could and side footed the ball into the bottom of Alex McCarthy’s net. It was the perfect start for The Reds who had done well to take advantage of clearly anxious Southampton side.
Southampton’s response will have been just what Saints fans will have wanted to see though. They began to made tracks in the midfield, with Hojbjerg, Oriol Romeu and Mario Lemina’s energy providing the perfect antithesis to the work rate of Gini Wijnaldum, Emre Can and Oxlade-Chamberlain. They were also creating chances. On eighteen minutes, Ryan Bertrand crossed from the Southampton left towards the back post. Andy Robertson leapt but was unable to clear. The ball fell perfectly for Hojbjerg who looked certain to score, but Loris Karius was quick off his line and pulled off a very good save. Karius was in action again soon after when he denied James Ward-Prowse with a fingertip save from a Dusan Tadic cross. The German stopper is clearly growing in confidence with each game, strengthening his grip on a the number one goalkeeper’s spot in the process.
Liverpool had given the impetus to Southampton and were struggling to get any control back of the game. It looked like an equaliser for the home side imminent – until the fortieth minute.
Mohamed Salah had the ball centrally on the edge of the Southampton box and was looking for an opening. He played it to Firmino, who expertly and sublimely laid it back to Salah with a back-heeled flick only a Brazilian could pull off. Salah had left Hoedt for dead, with the Dutchman guilty of some more criminal defending, and was clear in the area. As McCarthy came out to close the angle down Salah passed the ball into the bottom corner of the helpless goalkeeper’s net. Liverpool now had a comfortable lead but when did that mean anything to this team?
When the referee blew for half time it will have been a welcome sound for Jurgen Klopp. His side had practically gifted control of the game to the opposition after taking the lead and were lucky not to have gone in level. However, the important statistic in the corner of the television screen was all that mattered, and it was Liverpool who had the lead. Pellegrino will have been buoyed by his team’s ability to overpower the opposition in midfield and create clear chances. The question on everybody’s lips was a credible one – would Liverpool see it through?
The early stages of the second half seemed to suggest so. Things started to unravel slightly for Southampton had to bring off Mario Lemina through illness. They seemed to lose some stamina and pace in the middle of the park from there, as veteran Steven Davis couldn’t provide the same attributes as his Gabonese team mate. Sofiane Boufal and Shane Long were brought on in an attempt to hit Liverpool with pace and direct running. Virgil Van Dijk was proving to be a one-man wall though and nothing was getting through the giant Dutchman.
Liverpool had pace of their own and looked to utilise it on the counter attack. Robertson and Alexander-Arnold were getting forward less frequently but were playing some decisive balls into the channels for Mane and Salah to chase. It was tactic that seemed to bear fruit too, with Mane consistently being the beneficiary. His best chance came when Salah dummied an Alexander-Arnold ball for Mane. The Senegalese hitman struggled to control it before firing well wide of McCarthy’s goal. Salah would have an opportunity of his own, hitting a rebound from a Roberto Firmino shot into the side net of what was practically an open goal.
As the game drew to a close there was an acceptance from both sides that this was their lot for this encounter. Southampton’s intensity dropped with the realisation that they would end the weekend in the drop zone and Liverpool actually used some pleasing game management skills to see out a professional 2-0 win.
This could have been a momentum killer for Liverpool. With Spurs winning yesterday to go above us and Chelsea only a point behind us in the table, a win was absolutely necessary here. Adding to that the opportunity to get within two points of Manchester United and still having to face our arch rivals at Old Trafford within the next four weeks, and the pressure was intensified. This game was about more than putting away inferior opposition, with all due respect to Southampton. It was about showing character and composure to get the job done when it needed to be. Let’s hope we can show it again in Portugal on Wednesday night by beating Porto and putting ourselves in a good position to progress to the next round of the UEFA Champions League.