Liverpool tightened up the Premier League race for European places by beating Southampton, 2-0, on Sunday.
In the opening minutes, Phillipe Coutinho struck a sensational goal before and after referee Kevin Friend waved off Southampton appeals for a penalty kick. After more than a hour of intense action and numerous incidents, Raheem Sterling punished some sloppy defending to knock home the clinching goal. The result left Southampton in fifth place and Liverpool a point back in sixth.
Here are three takeaways from a crucial and dramatic match at St.Mary’s Stadium.
1. No Friend of both teams.
A day after several hotly contested decisions shaped a 1-1 tie between Chelsea and Burnley, controversy flared right after the opening kickoff. Friend twice rebuffed denied penalty-kick claims when Serbian attacker Filip Djuricic, a loanee from Benfica making his first start for Southampton, went down under challenges in the penalty area.
In the first situation, contact between defender Emre Can and Djuricic seemed minimal, but after Coutinho’s sensational strike a wild tackle by Joe Allen clearly wiped out Djuricic as he was about to shoot from close range. Friend turned down those appeals, as well as those lodged when Simon Mignolet charged outside his penalty area to block a ball with his chest and it ricocheted onto his arm, and a cross that struck former Southampton defender Dejan Lovren on the arm.
“In one situation [the second Djuricic incident], it is a clear penalty,” said Southampton manager Ronald Koeman. “The first and the third are more difficult to see what exactly happened. But the second is a clear penalty, and that is a mistake of the referee.”
Liverpool fans gave Friend some abuse as well when a hard, sliding tackle by Jose Fonte uprooted Sterling while also getting a piece of the ball. A hard, cold rain pelted down for the entire game and in the miserable conditions both teams played a commendable percentage of skillful soccer.
2. Skrtel strong in the center.
Since switching to a 3-4-3 system as its primary formation, Liverpool has gone unbeaten in 10 games and won seven of them. After those shaky opening minutes, centerback Martin Skrtel played a strong game and all but neutralized striker Graziano Pelle, who scored six goals in his first eight Premier League games this season but has netted only twice in the last 17.
(Liverpool’s unbeaten streak started Dec. 21 with a 2-2 tie against Arsenal in which Skrtel, his head bandaged from a gash inflicted by the boot of Olivier Giroud, stormed into the penalty area to head the equalizer in the 97th minute.)
Lovren withstood whistling and derision from his former fans to keep Eljero Elia relatively quiet and though Southampton fans howled when a cross struck his arm, the natural position -- arm down by his side -- apparently convinced Friend the contact was not intentional. Tough he was also cautioned, Lovren fared a lot better against his former team than did Adam Lallana, who labored to little effect and was replaced by Daniel Sturridge in the 62nd minute.
Skrtel stepped up to block a Saido Mane close-range shot with the score 1-1. Mane’s entry at halftime sparked Southampton for a significant spell but Southampton’s goalscoring woes continued; it has scored just once in the last four games.
Sterling scored the clincher when Matt Targett slipped trying to clear a ball and instead sent it right to Sterling, who smacked it home for his sixth goal of the season. Jordan Henderson leads Liverpool in several offensive categories, including assists and successful passes, yet he and Allen did a lot of the dirty work in midfield to stave off Southampton’s efforts to recover from that stunning early goal.
Three days before the game, midfielder Steven Gerrard met with Galaxy head coach Bruce Arena as the defending champion wrapped up its visit to Ireland and England. Rodgers did not name Gerrard to the game-day roster as the former England captain recovers from a hamstring injury.
3. Coutinho will continue to take on bigger role.
Not since that 2-2 tie with Arsenal nearly two months ago had Coutinho scored a goal. Maybe the Southampton players were bemoaning that first Djuricic incident, since none of them reacted quickly when Coutinho trapped a pass about 35 yards out and turned to face the Saints goal.
The 22-yard Brazilian did his nation’s heritage for spectacular, swerving shots proud by hitting a fierce shot with his right foot that clipped the underside of the bar and rebounded sharply into the roof of the net. He and Gerrard have both started 20 league games this season and after Gerrard leaves for MLS he could assume a greater presence in a midfield that Rodgers has strengthened during the past 18 months.
TRIVIA. Liverpool’s shutout was its fifth straight on the road, matching a feat the club last attained in the top flight 30 years ago.
Feb. 22 in Southampton
Southampton 0 Liverpool 2. Goals: Coutinho 3, Sterling 73.
Southampton -- Fraser; Clyne, Yoshida, Fonte, Targett, Ward-Prowse (Mane, 57), Wanyama, Davis (Schneiderlin, 46), Djuricic (Tadic, 75), Elia, Pelle.
Liverpool -- Mignolet; Can, Skrtel, Lovren, Ibe (Johnson, 75), Allen, Henderson, Markovic (Moreno, 46), Coutinho, Sterling, Lallana (Sturridge, 62).