Saints kick-off new year in style


Southampton began 2021 with one of their finest results for many a year to defeat reigning world club champions Liverpool at St Mary’s.

Danny Ings came back to haunt his former employers with the only goal of the game after just 111 seconds, classily lobbing the ball over Alisson from James Ward-Prowse’s chipped free-kick.

Thereafter Saints had occasional chances to extend the lead, but more telling was the paucity of opportunities afforded to Liverpool en route to a third consecutive clean sheet.

Ralph Hasenhüttl’s squad was down to the bare bones in the absence of Oriol Romeu, Ché Adams, Jannik Vestergaard, Nathan Redmond and Mohammed Salisu, along with the previously ever-present Alex McCarthy, who was sidelined by a positive COVID-19 test.

That meant a first Saints appearance for Fraser Forster since May 2019, and a first at St Mary’s in more than three years.

In total Saints showed three changes from the goalless draw against West Ham – the team’s second in succession – as Ibrahima Diallo and Stuart Armstrong both returned, having last started at Fulham on Boxing Day.

It did not take long for Saints to end their three-match goal drought, as Liverpool were caught cold by a familiar face.

Less than two minutes were on the clock when Armstrong was fouled by Thiago, who went straight into the book, and Ings caught eyes with Ward-Prowse, who spotted the striker’s run and played a clever ball over the top from the free-kick.

Liverpool were caught cold and Ings had an early sight of goal he was not prepared to pass up, brilliantly lobbing Alisson with an improvised left-footed finish – his 50th Premier League goal in just his 124th appearance in the competition, and the earliest of the lot.

Stung into action, Liverpool responded when Roberto Firmino fired narrowly wide of Forster’s left-hand post, before the keeper came flying out to dispossess Mo Salah in full flight.

One of those frustratingly late offside flags would have halted the Egyptian in his tracks regardless, but it will have done no harm to Forster’s confidence early in the game.

Clearly frustrated, Andy Robertson lashed out at compatriot Armstrong with a petulant kick that brought another booking, as the full-back incurred the wrath of manager Jürgen Klopp, who was standing just a couple of yards from the incident.

Armstrong’s passes from deep were causing the Reds a problem. One was perfectly flighted into the path of Theo Walcott, who just overran the ball, before another was held up by Ings and helped on to Moussa Djenepo, whose first-time shot was off target.

The Malian winger has struggled for momentum in his 18-month Saints career to date, and was visibly upset at having to leave the field with another injury in the 31st minute, consoled by both Ings and Hasenhüttl on his way down the tunnel.

On in his place came one of the eight Academy graduates on the home bench, as Nathan Tella entered the fray to partner Ings, with Walcott shifting to the left flank vacated by Djenepo.

Liverpool’s away record has been surprisingly poor this season, winning just two of their first eight games on the road, and the visitors struggled to hit their stride throughout the first half.

When Sadio Mané was presented with a rare opportunity to run into space, the former Saint was uncharacteristically wasteful in shooting over from 20 yards.

Meanwhile, the exuberance of youth was irritating Alisson, as Tella chased down a lost cause to force the keeper into a hurried clearance, from which Saints won the ball back and Ings flicked on to his new strike partner.

Tella had Armstrong to his right but was confident enough to go alone, and was much closer than Mané with an attempted curler that was only a whisker wide of a fairy-tale story.

Then Ward-Prowse’s pass down the line was perfectly weighted to release Ings, whose attempted square ball to the unmarked Walcott was crucially intercepted by stand-in centre-back Jordan Henderson.

Perhaps Liverpool’s best chance of the half arrived right at the end of it, when Mané crossed for Salah to head wide, as Saints safely negotiated four added minutes unscathed.

Hasenhüttl would have known to expect a fired-up opponent lying in wait for the restart, and the league leaders soon began to force Saints back, deeper into their own territory.

Georginio Wijnaldum was screaming for a penalty when his driven shot struck Jack Stephens on the arm, but the defender could do nothing about it and VAR ruled in his favour.

Stephens was soon throwing himself in the way of another chance, this time for Mané, to preserve an increasingly hard-fought clean sheet, as Hasenhüttl, restored to the touchline after having to self-isolate against West Ham, encouraged his players at every turn.

The blocks kept coming, as Armstrong and Jan Bednarek denied full-backs Trent Alexander-Arnold and Robertson respectively, who were now more advanced than ever.

With 13 minutes left, Hasenhüttl saved Ings’s legs as Saints finished the match with Tella and Dan N’Lundulu up front, just as they did against Manchester City, who would be taking great interest in this developing story on the south coast.

The youthful front pairing combined to force Xherdan Shaqiri into the book for a trip on Tella with Liverpool exposed, before Yan Valery joined in the fun, making his maiden first-team appearance of the season as an emergency right winger, replacing Walcott.

No sooner had the Frenchman come on than he was shooting past the stranded Alisson and forcing Henderson to sprint back to his goal line to intervene and deny Saints a far more comfortable last five minutes.

Alisson sent himself forward for a stoppage-time corner that was headed over by Henderson, but the hosts held on, following in the footsteps of Manchester City (twice), Watford, Arsenal and Aston Villa as the only teams to inflict defeat on Klopp’s Liverpool in the last three Premier League seasons.