As he watched the final minutes of his exile drain away, Luis Suarez would have wondered how he would have fitted into the afternoon, how he would have taken the chances squandered by others and how he would have won this game.
Liverpool have endured the 10-match ban that accompanied Suarez’s sinking of his teeth into Branislav Ivanovic’s arm better than any dared hope. Brendan Rodgers not only kept hold of the striker, despite the Uruguayan’s increasingly whiny protests that he wanted to spend quality time in London, but this was the only game of the 10 that had been lost.
It was, however, badly lost and the question now is whether Rodgers will throw Suarez back in against Manchester United in Wednesday’s League Cup tie or wait until Sunday at Sunderland. Given that Paolo di Canio’s side has had to endure Mezut Ozil’s debut, this might be unnecessarily cruel on a club already adrift and rudderless in the Premier League.
Nevertheless, this was a reminder that, however impressively they may have begun, Liverpool are not yet the real thing. Southampton, who have now taken eight points with three goals, won easily and once Dejan Lovren had put them ahead, there were few moments of genuine anxiety.
With time and Anfield’s patience almost exhausted, Daniel Sturridge sent a ball over the top for Raheem Sterling. He was clear on goal and, had he kept his nerve the equaliser might have been his. Instead, his first touch sent the ball scuttling towards the goalkeeper. The match finished amid empty seats and boos.
For those who imagined that the well-worked victory over Manchester United signalled Liverpool’s rebirth, this was as sobering as a bucket of water tossed over a gutter-bound drunk.
Rodgers had never been among them. The Liverpool manager’s programme notes had talked of: “returning the club to the pinnacle of the game, both domestically and in Europe,” without suggesting that the journey would be complete by May.
“We never got going. From the off, it was lethargic” said Rodgers, who had last tasted defeat in March. This was also against Southampton and it was, coincidentally, the only loss suffered by Philippe Coutinho since his arrival on Merseyside from Inter Milan. Liverpool may have missed Suarez but they missed the little Brazilian rather more.
“Yes,” Rodgers agreed. “Technically it was disappointing. We looked flat and slow in our game. I would like a much stronger squad but we have what we have and we have lost a number of players, including Glen Johnson and Coutinho.
“It hurts because we haven’t tasted defeat for so long but I am still optimistic for the season despite a defeat that is hard to swallow. The one bright light is that, from Wednesday, we have Suarez back.”
Bizarrely, Rodgers started with no fewer than four centre-halves. One of them was Mamadou Sakho, who remarked when he signed from Paris St Germain that he should not be considered a left back. That was precisely where he found himself and, as You‘ll Never Walk Alone began sounding out, around the stadium he could be seen quietly praying.
Individually, both Sakho and Kolo Toure produced some smart interplay but the unit as a whole looked dreadfully ponderous. Rodgers pointed out that there was also precious little offensive threat from his back, although their habit of passing back to Simon Mignolet, who fancies himself as a sweeper, frequently threatened self-destruction.
That a side with four centre-halves lost the game to a corner, conceded after a mix-up between Toure and Martin Skrtel, was their manager reflected “criminal”. His counterpart, Mauricio Pochettino, remarked caustically that: “Just because you have four centre-backs doesn’t mean you are not going to concede. Over the 90 minutes we were much superior to them.”
The corner from Adam Lallana was struck by Lovren with the side of his head as he fell under pressure from Daniel Agger and then hit the roof of the net as Steven Gerrard tried to clear from behind the line. Shortly afterwards Rodgers employed a specialist left-back.
A free-kick from the Liverpool captain before the interval had the closest they came to a breakthrough but, just at the second when the when the stadium was about to explode to celebrate the goal, Artur Boruc pushed it aside. Journalistic cliché would demand that the Southampton keeper leapt like a salmon. There are few dolphins in the various Sea Life centres dotted around the coast who could have done better.
Liverpool (4-4-1-1): Mignolet, Toure, Skrtel (Luis Alberto 72), Agger, (Luis Enrique 56) Sakho; Henderson, Gerrard, Lucas Leiva, Moses; Aspas (Sterling ht); Sturridge.
Substitutes: Jones, Ibe, Kelly, Wisdom.
Southampton (4-2-3-1): Boruc; Clyne, Fonte, Lovren, Shaw; Schneiderlin, Wanyama; Rodriguez, Osvaldo (Cork 89), Lallana (Ward Prowse 76); Lambert (Davis 66).
Substitutes: Davies, Ramirez, Chambers, Hooiveld.
Referee: Neil Swarbrick (Lancashire)
Match rating: 6/10
Man of the match: Lovren (Southampton)