Liverpool’s remote chance of cracking a top-four finish was furthered by goals from Sadio Mane and Thiago against Southampton in a rare Anfield win crowned with a clean sheet.
The Spain midfielder selected quite the time and match situation to get off the mark for the defending champions, striking on 90 to make the result safe as Saints pushed for an equaliser.
Mane’s first-half header didn’t feel like enough to get Liverpool over the line on Saturday night and closer to Chelsea and Leicester for that final Champions League place.
But they battled to victory despite Jurgen Klopp’s selection options being limited further.
Given their astonishing misfortune this season, perhaps there should be a new metric applied: xI - Expected Injuries, which Liverpool have certainly outperformed.
Both defenders recruited in the winter window - Ozan Kabak and Ben Davies - to cover the long-term absences of their main three centre-backs - were ruled out through injury.
James Milner and Naby Keita were also out with knocks, putting it at 10 players sidelined and pulling in the likes of Ben Woodburn and Billy Koumetio to make up numbers on the bench.
Such has been Liverpool’s season. The reverse fixture back in January was when they really started to skid, as Danny Ings’ early goal was enough to spell their second league defeat of the season. Klopp’s men had limped to draws with West Bromwich Albion and Newcastle prior to that encounter, but the poor decision-making and nothingness at St. Mary’s was both staggering and a sign of shambolic things to come.
Liverpool, already having broken their leg and spine to pinch the manager’s analogy of their injury crisis, were still at the Premier League summit by that point.
The defeats would stream in afterwards, eight in the next 11 top-flight fixtures.
By kick off at Anfield, Liverpool had lost more league and cup matches in 2021 than they managed to win.
The crumb of pre-match comfort was that Southampton have earned fewer points than any other side so far this year.
The opening half hour followed a worrying pattern for the hosts: Liverpool were creating, but not converting.
Mane and Mohamed Salah both wasted opportunities, before combining to break the deadlock immediately after a scare.
Alisson did superbly to dart off his line to deny Che Adams from eight yards, smothering Nathan Redmond’s follow-up.
That was a warning for Liverpool, but there was no time to process it as the Merseysiders had the ball in the back of the net 46 seconds later.
Salah, having earlier opted to shoot from a tight angle instead of playing in Mane, did not repeat the error.
He delivered a fine cross from the right that dissected several Southampton bodies and found the Senegal international at the far post.
Unlike Alisson, Fraser Forster was slow to react and Mane ousted Kyle Walker-Peters to nod home.
It ended his longest run without a home league goal for Liverpool. Southampton’s keeper was then quick to deny Salah, who twisted Jack Stephens and dribbled his way to setting up a shot. The ball evntually broke to Fabinho, whose effort was blocked.
If Liverpool hadn’t digested the caution prior to their goal, Ralph Hasenhuttl’s men ended the half stronger as a reminder they could still prove a nuisance up front.
However, there was little of note from either side after the break. By 60 minutes, Southampton had zero shots of any kind in the second half despite chasing the game, while Liverpool - needing breathing space - managed just two.
As time ticked on, the sense that the visitors could get something from the clash intensified especially with Klopp’s side recently failing to hold onto a lead against Leeds and Newcastle.
Alisson raced off his line to kill a chance from substitute Michael Obafemi with his first touch of the match after a neat pass from Adams.
Fabinho blocked a Walker-Peters’ shot, before Liverpool’s goalie was twice called into action.
He turned an effort from sub Ibrahima Diallo over the bar and then was relieved to gather from Adams having played the ball straight to him.
At the other end, Mane had the ball in the back of the net again after being supplied by Trent Alexander-Arnold, but it was flagged offside.
Liverpool did finally get their buffer. Thiago cut inside from the left, dribbled along the edge of the area and hit a shot that took a slight deflection in, wrong-footing Forster.
A big goal at a crucial time, which accompanied a satisfying clean sheet for a depleted defence and kept Liverpool fighting on to remain mixing it with Europe’s elite.
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