Monday, 23 February 2015

Reds sink Saints to close in on fourth

Liverpool produced a professional and accomplished away performance to claim a 2-0 victory at Southampton’s St Mary’s Stadium and capitalise on slip ups by top four rivals Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur on Sunday teatime.

A world class wonder goal early on from Philippe Coutinho and a clinical second half strike from Raheem Sterling were sufficient to move the Reds up to sixth in the table, reducing the gap with the top four to just two points and extending Liverpool’s remarkable unbeaten run to eleven League matches.

It was far from a classic performance from a Brendan Rodgers team, with the manner of victory more reminiscent of Rafael Benitez’s reign in the Reds’ dugout, but it was exactly what Liverpool needed to take three vital points from a tough fixture on the back of a tricky Europa League match at Anfield on Thursday evening.

Rodgers made three changes to the team that narrowly beat Besiktas, Lovren coming in for the injured Sakho to face his former employers, Markovic replacing Moreno on the left wing and Sterling starting in place of the rested Sturridge up front.

Beginning at break neck pace, the match provided entertainment and controversy right from the first whistle, with two Southampton penalty shouts sandwiching a goal-of-the-season contender from Coutinho.

Straight from the kick-off, debutant Djuricic went through on goal and appeared to be hauled down from behind by Emre Can, who seemed uncomfortable in the unfamiliar position of left sided centre back. Thankfully, referee Kevin Friend waved played on, and he was right to do so, as there was no malicious intent in the challenge from Can and Djuricic went down easily.

At the other end, Markovic fed Coutinho with a simple short pass and the Brazilian proceeded to smash a cracking 30 yard strike past Forster and into the net off the underside of the bar.

Coutinho scored a world class goal-of-the-season contender
It was a simply awesome strike from a player in top form, who is allaying concerns about his lack of end product with important goals like this one and the similarly stunning one he produced late on against Bolton Wanderers in the FA Cup fourth round replay.

Southampton responded well, proceeding to dominate possession and control the match like Liverpool normally do. Moreover, the Merseysiders’ defence appeared fragile, nervy and vulnerable in the absence of the ever-improving Mamadou Sakho. However, Liverpool did appear to have Lady Luck on their side, as three further incidents saw them benefit from debateable refereeing decisions.

Soon after the opener, Djuricic was taken down in the box again, this time by a blatant foul from Allen, but Friend inexplicably awarded nothing once again and Mignolet made an important stop to deny Elia after the loose ball reached the Dutchman’s feet.

There was another huge moment involving Mignolet and Elia on the stroke of half time. The former appeared to handle as he rushed out to the edge of the box to dispossess the latter, who was bearing down on goal. It was an extremely tight call, but it’s fair to say that the Belgian keeper was fortunate to remain on the pitch.

Mignolet could have seen red for this incident
From the resulting corner, the increasingly exasperated home support appealed for another penalty after the ball struck arch-villain Dejan Lovren on the arm. The referee did well to not award a penalty for what was clearly ball to hand when it would have been understandable, if not acceptable, had he pointed to the spot to atone for earlier errors.

In a first half revolving around penalty shouts, Liverpool also appealed for a spot kick on the half hour mark after Saints’ skipper Fonte had felled Sterling in the area. It looked a stonewaller at first sight, but replays later showed that Fonte got the ball first and hence it was probably the right decision not to give a penalty.

The second half was far less frantic from Liverpool’s point of view, as the visitors managed the game much better and afforded their hosts very few opportunities to equalise. There were also thankfully no penalty shouts; the first period had already provided more than enough for one match.

Alberto Moreno was introduced for the ineffective Lazar Markovic, who has gone off the boil in recent weeks, at half time, and provided more of an outlet down the left hand side, linking up with fellow substitute Daniel Sturridge on 66 minutes during a good counter attack, which culminated in Henderson’s mishitting the Spaniard’s cutback, giving Forster an easy save.

The English stopper had no chance seven minutes later, however, as he was let down by his defence, who suffered a catalogue of errors in the build up to Liverpool’s decisive second goal. The hosts lazily handed possession to Sterling, who found Moreno on the left. Targett then cleared Moreno’s cross straight to Sterling, who happily accepted Southampton’s offer of help, striking past Forster to put the game to bed.

Sterling capitalised on poor Southampton defending to end the match as a contest
Southampton still had a few chances in the closing stages, but the deflated atmosphere amongst the home supporters showed that most of them believed the game was over.  Mignolet saved Tadic’s low free kick well and there was an almighty goalmouth scramble in injury time, but the Reds never looked seriously in danger of folding and saw out the 90 minutes to secure three points from a massive ‘six-pointer’.

Liverpool may have started the season very slowly, but they are the form team now heading into the business end of the season, and therefore there’s every reason to believe that they can finish in the top four. If Rodgers can manage his squad so that they can juggle their Europa League and Premier League commitments, the Reds won’t be remaining in European football’s inferior competition for very long.


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