A James Beattie penalty and a slap-dash own goal by John Arne Riise gave Southampton a fifth win in seven league games last night, stalling Liverpool's ambitions to steal back to summit of the Premiership.
The Saints' win, a second successive victory against a supposedly title-contending side, lifts them to 12th in the table. Reports of nose bleeds in Hampshire can be expected shortly.
Liverpool went into the game their first of seven in 26 days knowing that a victory would take them equal on points with the leaders Leeds. They were without form, however, having seen just one win in their previous six league matches. And they were without Michael Owen, who had failed to recover from injury and saw his place in attack alongside Nicolas Anelka filled by Jari Litmanen.
Southampton started with an unchanged line-up, not surprisingly given that their previous outing, on New Year's Day at Stamford Bridge, had ended in a 4-2 win for Gordon Strachan's team. That game and last night's, two legs of a tough examination over the early part of 2002, will be followed by meetings with Manchester United, on Sunday, and then trips to Liverpool and Arsenal.
Southampton attacked from the off, with Marian Pahars and the nippy Wayne Bridge combining down the left flank Liverpool's weakest link to demonstrate that they were capable of drawing the defenders out and making holes for Beattie to run into.
It was Anelka who had the first real chance, however, after 10 minutes, when he exploited the space the home side kept leaving in their own rearguard. At the crucial moment, the Frenchman's touch failed him and the delay allowed Paul Williams to bustle back and steal the ball.
Bridge, an England Under-21 international who has attracted plenty of admirers in recent months, including at Anfield reportedly, produced another trademark run a few minutes later. His cross was dangerous enough to worry Jerzy Dudek but the goalkeeper managed to hold it just before Chris Marsden arrived late and bundled him over.
Beattie was next to trouble the visitors, using his strength to win the ball from Stéphane Henchoz in the middle of the park before loping goalward. Approaching the box, he laid the ball off to Pahars, who failed to dig out either a shot or a return pass. Pahars did better a few minutes later, jigging into the box, but Henchoz stood up well to his shot and Paul Telfer's effort from the rebound was held by Dudek.
With Southampton pressing forward, they were susceptible to Liverpool breaks, exemplified by Anelka's dash down the right on the half-hour. Having left Williams standing, he crossed to an encroaching Litmanen. The Finn's shot was blocked well by Jason Dodd, although the goalkeeper Paul Jones had a nervy moment before the ball looped to safety.
Anelka came closest to scoring a first-half goal in the 37th minute after using his pace and timing to spring forward and collect a neat ball threaded from midfield. His shot was lashed powerfully toward the top right-hand corner but Jones, with a superb single-handed save, palmed around the post.
Southampton were forced into a first-half substitution when Rory Delap went off with a knock but it was his replacement, Matt Oakley, who was instrumental when the breakthrough came. First, on the hour, he won a corner through dogged determination. The resulting set-piece saw a scramble that included a goal-line clearance by Dudek from Marsden. Within 90 seconds, with the Liverpool defence still clearly unsettled, Oakley took possession in the box and Sami Hyypia scythed into him. Graham Poll rightly pointed straight to the spot. Beattie made no mistake with a low, hard drive to the bottom right-hand corner.
Liverpool, having already brought on Emile Heskey for the injured Vladimir Smicer, needed more attacking options, so on came Riise, one of the Premiership's most front-running back men. He scored within two minutes of his arrival, although not for his own team. Pahars had made headway down the left flank and crossed, seeking out Anders Svensson on the far post. Riise, rising to intercept, met the ball with his head. Dudek was stranded and the Merseysiders were sunk.
Southampton (4-4-2): Jones 6; Dodd 6, Lundekvam 5, Williams 4, Bridge 7; Telfer 5, Delap 5 (Oakley 7, 34), Svensson 5, Marsden 7; Beattie 7, Pahars 7 (Ormerod, 76). Substitutes not used: Moss (gk), Monk, Fernandes.
Liverpool (4-1-3-2): Dudek 5; Wright 4 (Riise 3, 69), Hyypia 4, Henchoz 6, Carragher 5; Hamann 5; Gerrard 4, Murphy 4 (Berger, 78), Smicer 4 (Heskey 4, 57); Anelka 6, Litmanen 5. Substitutes not used: Kirkland (gk), McAllister.
Referee: G Poll (Tring) 6.