After penalty heartbreak in last year’s final, Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool had been determined to make amends as they faced Southampton in the first leg of the EFL Cup semi-final a fortnight ago, but a poor performance saw the Reds outplayed in a 0-1 defeat, which could, and almost certainly should have been more, with a number of chances going begging for the Saints.
It is always difficult when a clean sheet is required at Anfield, especially with Liverpool being the Premier League’s top scorers so far this season, but Claude Puel’s men executed a difficult game plan to perfection.
The absence of an early goal unsettled Liverpool as they struggled to break down a resolute Southampton defence, and whilst they’re focus was on getting the first goal, they looked shaky when being hit on the counter.
Nathan Redmond, very impressive on the night, lead two threatening bursts forward as Saints created the two most dangerous chances of the half, with the first being a pull back to Dusan Tadic who, 8 yards from goal, could only be denied by Liverpool keeper Karius.
The second saw another positive run from Redmond as he drove at the heart of the Red’s defence at pace, and this time he pulled the ball back for Steven Davis who failed to latch onto the first ball, and panicked at the second bite of the cherry, skewing the half volley chance high over the bar.
Despite 0-0 suggesting that it had been a successful half for the South Coast side, the missed opportunities allowed nerves to creep in, but it had been a very encouraging 45 minutes of football.
Southampton have often been criticized for lacking tempo in the final third, counter attacking without pace or conviction and passing backwards too often this season, but that changed tonight as they soaked up the Liverpool pressure whilst remaining effective on the break.
However, Jay Rodriguez hadn’t looked too sharp leading the line, and the pace of Shane Long offered a far more dangerous option.
The half time team talk seemed to have rejuvenated Liverpool to an extent, and it seemed as if they had woken up at last, but in the final quarter of the tie, it always seemed like it would be too little too late.
With a bit more creativity, Daniel Sturridge was presented with two clear cut opportunities, but the first was a close range acrobatic effort that flew over, and the second also cleared Fraser Forster’s goal.
Forster, who looked to have made a catastrophic error with what looked to be a routine save, made an incredible leap to claw the ball away from the goal and tip it round the far post in what was a miraculous clearance, and at that point, it just seemed to be Southampton’s night.
Despite the chances created, take nothing away from the colossal performances in the Southampton back line, with Jack Stephens and Maya Yoshida the makeshift centre-back partnership.
The pair were both out of favour merely a month ago, but with the sale of Jose Fonte to West Ham and the injury to the superb Virgil Van Dijk, the two relatively inexperienced defenders were placed under immense pressure.
Stephens, called up for the biggest game of his career so far, had a flawless game, whilst Yoshida continued his recent good form with another top match.
So, after Southampton had put in a defensive master-class and had kept Liverpool at bay for ninety minutes, their moment going forward finally came, with two substitutes combining.
Josh Sims carried the ball at pace from his own penalty area in a brilliant run, and after cutting across Georginio Wijnaldum, he slid the ball through to that man Shane Long, who caressed the ball into his path before keeping his composure and belting the ball past Karius in goal and sending Saints to Wembley.
Southampton’s last major cup success came in the FA Cup of 1976 against Manchester United, and should the Red Devils overcome Hull in their return leg, history could repeat itself.
The biggest concern is that Virgil Van Dijk will remain a doubt for the final itself, but should their new found partnership at the back continue to flourish, they will remain serious contenders for League cup glory.
In what has been a relatively poor season for them in reality, cup success would make it a far more memorable one, so Saints fans – keep February 26th free in your diary.