Southampton vs Liverpool | Sunday 22 February | St Mary’s Stadium | 18:15
With the league title declared a two-horse race for some time now, the pursuit for a top four spot has intensified. Currently Manchester United and Southampton are in prime position to join the top two in the final Champions League qualifying positions. However, Arsenal, Tottenham and Liverpool are in hot pursuit and with just five points separating third to seventh, the battle for a place in Europe’s elite club competition could go down to the wire. This weekend sees fourth place Southampton host seventh place Liverpool in a match that could either puncture the Reds’ top four chances or put them just a point behind their opponents.
To Win (90mins)
Southampton will welcome back a number of familiar faces when they tackle Liverpool. During what was a horrid transfer window at the beginning of the season, Adam Lallana, Dejan Lovren and Rickie Lambert all left St Mary's in favour of a move to Anfield. Those exits came at a reported combined cost of £49 million and added to the departures of head coach Mauricio Pochettino, Calum Chambers and Luke Shaw. However, the Saints have surprised those who expected them to struggle, with Ronald Koeman's men sitting fourth in the league with thirteen matches remaining. Their defence has been most impressive, with their record of twelve clean sheets and just seventeen goals conceded the best in the Premier League.
The Saints are coming off a disappointing result last Wednesday as they were held by ten-man West Ham to a goalless draw at St Mary’s, with the hosts feeling they should have won. Southampton dominated proceedings for much of the match and were given a further advantage when Hammers goalkeeper Adrian was sent off for handling outside of his area on 61 minutes. An attacking presence which was bolstered by the debut of Filip Djuricic late on seemed likely to draw further scoring opportunities, but the form of substitute stopper Jussi Jaaskelainen kept Koeman’s team at bay. Sadio Mane is Southampton’s most in-form player. The Senegalese winger has scored four goals in his last five Premier League games for the Saints and appears to be their current biggest threat going forward. Attacking midfielder Tadic has been one of Southampton’s best players this season, appearing in all but two of their 24 league games. He has scored three goals from midfield but much more impressive is how creative he has been. With Lucas Leiva and Steven Gerrard missing from midfield, Jordan Henderson and Joe Allen will have their hands full keeping the Serbian quiet. Captain Morgan Schneiderlin will return after missing the West Ham game while Shane Long remains sidelined.
On paper, Liverpool have the toughest run in of all the teams chasing a top four place. Of their thirteen remaining games, seven will be played away, including trips to Southampton, Arsenal and Chelsea, with Manchester City and Manchester United to visit Anfield. The next week and a half will be vital for the Reds as they prepare for a two-legged UEFA Europa League tie with Besiktas and Premier League matches away to Southampton and at home to Manchester City to follow. Things have been great of late for Brendan Rodgers and his troops, but a bad run in their next four games could erase all that hard work. Two defeats in 22 games have seen the Reds move within four points of the Champions League places and secure an FA Cup quarter-final slot after last Saturday’s win away to Crystal Palace. When Palace took the lead through Fraizer Campbell, it looked as if Alan Pardew’s side would maintain their hold over Rodgers’ team. However, Liverpool hit back with two goals in nine minutes through Daniel Sturridge and Adam Lallana. Henderson and Emre Can led the way for Liverpool in a strong display, while Allen's performance was another hint that the midfield will cope with Gerrard still on the sidelines. With Sturridge back in the starting line-up, the Reds look like the team that gave champions City a run for their money last season. The return of the England striker has been a key reason behind Liverpool's impressive run of form, where they have won five of their last six matches. Philippe Coutinho looks to be reaching a true level of consistency in his displays as part of the dual number ten system in the 3-4-2-1, flourishing in a more central role. The Brazilian is a joy to watch, turning past opposition with his quick feet and getting Liverpool on the attack almost every time he touches the ball.
VERDICT: Liverpool 18/10
These sides met in their opening Premier League match of the season where Liverpool edged a 2-1 victory with Sturridge getting the winner after Nathaniel Clyne’s goal ruled out Raheem Sterling’s opener. Liverpool also won this fixture last season at St Mary’s, a 3-2 victory for the visitors. Southampton have been solid defensively at home but have only won seven of their thirteen games there, losing three times. Liverpool are in great form and have looked the better team in recent weeks. Back the Reds to record a third consecutive victory over Southampton.