Liverpool’s chances of reaching the Champions League effectively vanished yesterday in an astonishing match at St Mary’s. After being 2-0 up at the interval and cruising, they collapsed as the Southampton manager Ronald Koeman’s substitutions turned the game on its head.
Sadio Mané came off the bench to score twice, although the substitution did not look quite so clever when the Senegal forward had a penalty saved by Simon Mignolet three minutes after taking the field and with Liverpool still 2-0 up. But the unexpected three points have Saints fans and manager alike calculating the possibilities of a return to the Europa League. “That’s good because you are fighting for something until the end of the season,” Koeman said.
Liverpool had scored through Philippe Coutinho and Daniel Sturridge and could have had more. But Koeman’s introduction of Mané – available for the match after Saints had appealed successfully against the red card he was shown in the victory away to Stoke City nine days ago – made an immediate difference.
The Liverpool manager Jürgen Klopp’s own introduction at the break of Martin Skrtel in favour of former Saint Dejan Lovren, who had been booked, was less successful, as Graziano Pelle dominated the Slovakian defender in the air and on the ground throughout the second half.
“There are still 27 points to get, but we don’t have to dream of things like this,” Klopp said. “We have to play football and win games. If we play like we did in the first half we can win. If we play like in the second half it’s more difficult.
“I’m not a good loser so I don’t feel brilliant, as you can imagine, but I’m not angry, I am frustrated that we got nothing for a very good first half,” he added, downplaying suggestions that Thursday’s Europa League tie away to Manchester United had left his players weary in that second half.
“It’s easy to count the games we had and the games Southampton had. Of course, there’s a difference, but it’s a football problem, nothing else – football mistakes and we can learn from them and we will. But for today it’s too late because we lost.”
Liverpool had a narrow escape early on when Roger East, the referee, ignored claims that Lovren had pushed Shane Long over in the penalty area. They took advantage after 17 minutes when Coutinho curled a low shot past Fraser Forster from 25 yards. Four minutes later, Liverpool broke quickly, Devock Origi found Sturridge, and the England striker sidestepped Ryan Bertrand and struck the ball past Forster.
By now, the home fans must have been fearing a repeat of Liverpool’s 6-1 December victory here in the Capital One Cup, and more goals might have followed as Liverpool broke repeatedly, but Joe Allen hit one shot straight at Forster and had a goal ruled out for offside against Mamadou Sakho.
But after 48 minutes referee East did award a penalty to Southampton when Skrtel pulled Pelle’s shirt. Mignolet dived to his right to save Mané’s kick, but if that was a blow to either Mané or the home side, it did not show, and after 64 minutes, Mané, played in by Pelle, twisted past Sakho and shot past Mignolet’s left hand.
Even then, Liverpool continued to make openings, but Christian Benteke scuffed the best one wide, and instead of 3-1 it was 2-2 after 83 minutes when Pelle won a long high ball against Skrtel, took a return pass from Long and smacked it past Mignolet’s right hand.
Three minutes later and the comeback was complete. Skrtel missed a header and Pelle played the ball through for Mané to hold off Sakho and roll a shot into the corner of the net as Koeman sprinted joyfully along the touchline, showing more pace than he had in his playing days.
“It is the first time and I think the last time, I am still tired,” he said. “Normally you don’t get this chance, they will kill you more than they did. It is fantastic, from 2-0 down and with the importance of the game. Tomorrow is my birthday and this is the best present I could get.”