22 February 2015

Liverpool 2-0 Southampton

Coutinho 3'
Sterling 74'

I've written it before, but I haven't written it often this season. It is far better to be lucky and good rather than lucky or good. And infinitely preferable to unlucky and sometimes good, sometimes bad, and often flawed. Which has been the dominant theme this season.

By all rights, Liverpool could have conceded two, three, even four in the first half. The first 15 minutes were an utter abomination aside from the best goal that Coutinho has scored for Liverpool and probably will ever score for Liverpool.

Southampton had two very viable penalty shouts in the first four minutes. Within 30 seconds, Đuricic was in from a long ball over the top, and went down under next to no contact from Emre Can (surprisingly starting on the left with Lovren on the right after Sakho was ruled out with a hip problem). No call was probably the right decision, but you've seen them given. Three minutes later, a much better claim, Allen chasing down Elia, narrowly missing the ball with his attempted tackle and taking out the player, which had to have been unseen by both referee and linesman. I'm admittedly incredibly biased. It was absolutely a penalty.

But neither was given, and those no-calls bracketed Liverpool's goal of the season to date, a perfectly placed 30-yard blast from Coutinho, giving Forster absolutely no chance on a shot that cannoned off the underside of the bar and into the net. It was an unbelievably frenetic start to what would remain a frenetic match.

Liverpool settled after that storm: still under pressure, still reliant on a misfiring counter-attack, but better, able to actually keep possession on occasion. And Kevin Friend was at least consistent, ignoring Liverpool's claims for a penalty when Fonte got both Sterling and the ball, another that you've seen given and what would almost certainly have been a foul on any other part of the pitch.

Chances were few and far between for Southampton, nonexistent for Liverpool, but controversy was never far off.

In the 44th minute, Liverpool's defense was beaten by yet another long ball over the top, Elia racing behind Skrtel and Lovren, and Mignolet rushed out to close down. And handled outside the box. Both Friend and his linesman were unmoved, and the PGMOL actually came out after the match and said it was the right decision, Mignolet blocking the ball with his chest before it accidentally ricocheted off his arm. But there was no way that referee or linesman could have seen that in real time. Or seen that Mignolet was inches outside his area. So when there's that uncertainty, no decision is the usual and probably correct decision, especially when it's a decision that would radically change the game. Not that it's any consolation to Southampton, who were soon infuriated by another non-call on a potential Lovren handball – which absolutely wasn't, as his arms were at his sides.

Thankfully, the second half was a different story. Southampton brought on Schneiderlin for Steven Davis, Liverpool Moreno for Markovic, and Southampton remained the more dominant side. But it was dominant in possession only; Liverpool were rarely under the pressure they faced in the first half. Skrtel and Mignolet were phenomenal, Lovren and Can ranged from acceptable to decent (and, to be fair, "acceptable" is "phenomenal" for Dejan Lovren given his season so far).

Liverpool's defense played deeper, denying the long balls which led to Southampton's best chances in the first half. Southampton were limited to an abhorrent shot from Pelle after one of the few slick passing moves through Liverpool's midfield and an outstanding block from Skrtel after the substitute Mane was able to control a cross in the box.

And once Sturridge replaced Lallana, joining Sterling as a second striker rather than Sterling moving deeper, Liverpool finally became more threatening on the break. Liverpool shots in the 62 minutes before Sturridge came on: 1. Liverpool shots after Sturridge came on: 5. Granted, most weren't great shots, and too many moves broke down in the final third, but at least Liverpool were marginally threatening. And they threatened without any regression at the other end of the pitch.

Still, it took a mistake from Southampton for Liverpool to seal the match. Moreno's pressing led to Liverpool reclaiming possession in the final third, and he broke into the box after receiving the return ball from Sterling. His low cross wasn't good – behind Sturridge, ahead of Sterling – but Targett slipped on the slick pitch while trying to clear, a perfect set-up for the on-rushing Sterling, his shot deflected by Fonte past Forster.

That was the hammer blow. Sure, 15 minutes is more than enough time for Liverpool to throw away two goals, but that might well be the old Liverpool. Southampton's lone fright came from Tadic's set play, somehow through Liverpool's wall but incredibly well-held by Mignolet given the conditions. Sturridge probably should have added even more undeserved gloss, putting two shots straight at Forster, a third on-target but deflected behind by a Southampton defender.

So, yeah. Wow. It may not have been the best performance (hint: it wasn't, even considering how well Liverpool defended in the second half and the quality of the opening goal) but it's without a doubt Liverpool's best result of the season.

Liverpool were assuredly lucky. But Liverpool also made its own luck.

Liverpool's unfamiliar defense should have conceded at least once from the spot, but Liverpool's unfamiliar defense improved as the match went on, and kept Liverpool's fifth clean sheet in the last five away league matches, the last away league goal coming at United on December 14. Which is a ming-boggling statistic. Similar credit goes to Liverpool's midfield, providing strong protection at the back aside from Allen's should-have-been-a-penalty and Southampton's slice-and-dice chance wasted by Pelle on the hour mark. Incidentally, Henderson and Allen have been Liverpool's only fit central midfielders for the last three matches.

Rodgers responded well to Southampton's first half threats, adjusting the defensive line after halftime while bringing on Moreno for Markovic. The other two substitutions – Sturridge for Lallana and Johnson (!!!) for Ibe – also improved the overall play.

Southampton hadn't conceded twice in a league match since December 8, a 10-match streak prior to today. And that happened with Liverpool taking just six shots, tying their low in the league this season. That's the sort of conversion rate that's been sorely lacking from Liverpool's performances of late.

And all that happened after a difficult Europa League fixture on Thursday. Everton and Tottenham, both lucky to draw at home against Leicester and West Ham respectively, will tell you how difficult it is to perform at a high level after a Europa League match.

And now, Liverpool are just a point behind Southampton, two points behind fourth, and three points behind third, with 12 matches to play. That's unbelievable considering where the side was just three months ago. 21 points from a potential 48 to start the season, 24 points from a potential 30 since, after the switch to 3-4-2-1.

They admittedly haven't been the most difficult fixtures, at least until the last two, but now Liverpool have beaten their two closest competitors in the race for fourth in consecutive weeks. Battling victories, victories that admittedly had a bit of luck, but victories that Liverpool also earned. A side that's clearly believes in itself after this impressive run.

There's obviously quite a long way to go, but it's been a very good week for the club.

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