SOUTHAMPTON, England — Three quick points on Liverpool’s 2-0 Premier League win at Southampton on Sunday afternoon.
1. Liverpool close on top four
Liverpool go to sixth and are just two points behind fourth-place Manchester United. Victory at Southampton makes them a full part of the Champions League qualification conversation.
Within two minutes of kickoff, Philippe Coutinho struck a 30-yard effort of the type that made Matthew Le Tissier into Southampton’s greatest modern-day player. The ball dipped and swerved through the air, and goalkeeper Fraser Forster could only flail as it rattled off the crossbar and in. The Brazilian likes to take on such efforts, sometimes to the distraction of teammates, but this was pure, unadulterated class in conditions that did not allow much quality.
An ill wind was whipping rain from the English Channel, which added zip to the surface and caused some bone-thundering 50-50 challenges. Liverpool’s second came from the type of slip that can only be expected in such a squall. Teenager Matt Targett lost his footing in attempting to clear an Alberto Moreno centre, before Raheem Sterling converted to secure the three points on 73 minutes.
Liverpool were given a real contest by Ronald Koeman’s team, which played with great energy but lacked the class that Brendan Rodgers is able to call on from his creative players. When Southampton’s Morgan Schneiderlin, subbed on at halftime, tried to set up a clever free-kick move, his pass ran away from Sadio Mane to his right. That brought out the frustrations of home fans, who, already angered by the performance of referee Kevin Friend, were begging their team to shoot more often.
Within moments, Sterling had scored Liverpool’s second, and Southampton end the weekend outside the top four. Liverpool may be there soon. Of the hopefuls, they are in richest form.
2. We need to talk about Kevin Friend
It began breathlessly, perhaps too rapidly for referee Friend and his assistants. Southampton wanted a penalty in the first minute, and their case was decent. Emre Can got outpaced by Filip Djuricic, and the Serb fell to the floor after Can clawed at him. Can was last man, too, and might have been dismissed if Friend had called a foul. Instead, he chose to wave away complaints; Djuricic’s fall had been a little soft.
Friend spent Saturday as the fourth official at Stamford Bridge and received a flea in the ear from Jose Mourinho as referee Martin Atkinson waved away two penalties and sent off Nemanja Matic in Chelsea’s 1-1 draw with Burnley. Friend emulated Atkinson by four minutes when Joe Allen knocked Djuricic over in the box without getting to the ball. This seemed an even more obvious case but still nothing doing, and Can later escaped an obvious booking for a late challenge on Nathaniel Clyne.
Then came a handball from Dejan Lovren in the box and Simon Mignolet rushing out to stop Eljero Elia through on goal. The Belgian spread himself big, and the ball bounced from his chest but onto his left hand, and he was outside the box. It looked like a denying of a goal-scoring opportunity that could have resulted in a sending off, but Friend, who glanced over at his linesman, gave nothing once more.
To his credit, he had given a correct decision when Jose Fonte’s slide tackle on Raheem Sterling had won the ball first before taking the man, though home fans were not in a forgiving mood. “One-nil to the referee,” they sang, and somewhere in Surrey, a Portuguese eyebrow might have been raised.
It is not just Chelsea that are suffering the sharp end of bad refereeing decisions. Premier League officiating is going through something of a crisis. Referees are not fully to blame since players and managers make their job almost impossible, but performances like that of Friend are becoming all too commonplace.
3. Former Saints made to feel unwelcome
Daniel Sturridge was dropped to the bench after completing his first full 90 minutes on Thursday against Besiktas since his comeback. That restored Sterling to the central role he had made his own in Sturridge’s absence. Lazar Markovic replaced Alberto Moreno on the left and did not look at all comfortable when asked to defend, as he was repeatedly required to do in the first half. He did not last beyond the break, when Moreno replaced him.
Liverpool have a busy schedule ahead, taking in a trip to Turkey and next Sunday’s home match against Manchester City. Rodgers has plentiful options and can protect the likes of Sturridge against the overwork that contributed to his long-term absence. The striker eventually made a late cameo that brimmed with his usual danger.
Mamadou Sahko had been sent for a scan on a troublesome hip, meaning that Lovren made a return to the club he left rancorously, if profitably. Home fans were only too happy to remind the Croat of their disquiet. In the prematch warm-ups, Lovren was not made to feel welcome on his return, though Rickie Lambert, whose goals powered Saints up two divisions and kept them in the Premier League, was bathed in warm applause.
It didn’t help Lovren that his first three passes were skewed horribly and mocked loudly by the home support. The occasion did appear to be getting to him, and he was booked for a foul on James Ward-Prowse before his handball in the area toward the end of the first half.
Rodgers accommodated Lovren, who has yet to start a match as part of Rodgers’ back three, set in stone for the foreseeable future. Instead Can continued showing off his versatility by playing left of the three. It looked a fateful decision when Can tangled with Djuricic in those frenzied opening moments.
Adam Lallana received similar treatment for forcing through his own move. There was much enjoyment when Targett, the latest off the production line that made Lallana, nutmegged him, and the former Saints captain was jeered off when Sturridge replaced him.