Southampton 0 Liverpool 2
In the end, Southampton’s support seemed unsure as to where they should direct their scorn.
They had booed Virgil van Dijk throughout his return to the south coast, and merely grimaced at Sadio Mané's incisive contributions. Adam Lallana and Dejan Lovren would each be heckled during their own cameos near the end but, as the locals flooded away, it was Mauricio Pellegrino who shivered through the last rites of this defeat. The chorus of discontent at the final whistle told its own story.
There is no living with Liverpool on their travels at times, and their tally of 34 goals away from home this term is more than 11 clubs have managed in total. Yet, in succumbing to a sixth home defeat of the term, Southampton have sunk beneath the cut-off and into the bottom three, a team whose recent mini-revival still equates to a solitary league win since November. The FA Cup wins are rather deceptive. On a day when wins for Huddersfield and Newcastle caught the eye, the Saints wilted.
They were always playing catch-up here, trailing early as Liverpool countered at will, and far too powderpuff in front of goal. The quality on their subs’ bench would normally bode well in a division where half the participants are currently gripped by anxiety, and plenty are undermined by injury crises, but, in Southampton’s case, that suggests under-achievement. The nerves are jangling in these parts.
The goals that established Liverpool in third place, hovering disconcertingly on Manchester United's shoulder, were precisely and exquisitely constructed, even if each would have had Pellegrino, once a Liverpool centre-half, wincing at the slackness of the defending. The hosts had been warned early on, Mario Lemina and Wesley Hoedt almost contriving to liberate Roberto Firmino beyond their own back-line, but that panic-induced sloppiness persisted.
Within three minutes, Loris Karius was bowling the ball out to Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain down the right flank for the midfielder to bend a pass up-field towards Mohamed Salah. The delivery was ambitious, but Hoedt fluffed his attempted interception and duly presented the Egyptian with space in which to charge.
Cedric Soares tore across in a vain attempt to intercept, but Salah kept his head and merely squared for Firmino, one of two teammates who had arrived untracked at his side, to convert beyond Alex McCarthy. The speed of the move, progressing from one box to the other, was brutal. The locals had been preoccupied venting their displeasure at Van Dijk, who had nodded the ball back to Karius to spark the counter, only for the boos to be choked in their infancy and soon lost amid the raucous celebrations of those in the away section.
It would have been easy to conclude that Liverpool were at their most dangerous when Southampton had manoeuvred the ball up-field seeking their own reward, yet the visitors’ second, squeezed out just before the interval, had owed more to pressure exerted from the front with Firmino and Salah a blur of energy. They duly enjoyed a period of pinged passes, pinning the home side back where they craved relief and a chance to catch their breath. Mané might have flung over a centre in hope from the left but chose instead to retain possession and even retreat to find his deepest-lying teammate, Joël Matip, with his pass.
The centre-half, still well inside Southampton territory, slid a pass to Salah on the edge of the area and, under only vague pressure from Oriol Romeu, the Egyptian exchanged passes with Firmino. The Brazilian's back-heel beyond Jack Stephens was glorious, perfectly placed and paced, and was collected by Salah to convert crisply into the corner for a 29th goal of the season. The home players could only shrug their shoulders at the ruthlessness of it all.
Their frustration was born of the reality that Southampton had had their moments once roused from that plod of an opening, unsettling the visitors at times and certainly stretching Van Dijk – not that the Dutchman ever appeared to break into a sweat – and his fellow defenders. Pierre-Emile Højbjerg had forced Karius to save at his near-post after collecting possession goal-side of Andy Robertson, while the goalkeeper reacted smartly to deny headers from Guido Carrillo and James Ward-Prowse. Hoedt, too, would go close after the break, but the goal they desperately needed to force their way back into the contest never came.
The home support would turn their frustrations on the head coach for withdrawing Ward-Prowse 19 minutes from time. This group should have mustered more than five wins to date and, in truth, were cut open too easily in the latter stages. Salah, battering a rebound from McCarthy’s save into the side-netting, Mané and the substitute Lallana should have extended the visitors’ lead before the end.