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How “elite” Mohamed Salah can make it ugly for mismatched Southampton

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Southampton will be looking to heap yet more Anfield misery on the Reds this weekend, but they have endured struggles of their own this season.

You might be planning on enjoying a drink or a takeaway on Saturday night, but Jurgen Klopp and his players can’t!

Liverpool host a Saints side who have suffered a similarly dispiriting campaign to the Premier League champions, with injuries and form hampering them both.

For the Reds, this is a must-win match in the top-four race following two weeks since that gut-wrenching late draw with Newcastle.

Ahead of the game, we spoke to writer and Saints fan Luke Osman (@lukeosman_) to get the lowdown on a disappointing season, Liverpool‘s Champions League hopes and Saturday’s meeting.

 

How would you assess Southampton’s season overall?

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - Monday, March 1, 2021: Southampton's Jannik Vestergaard looks dejected during the FA Premier League match between Everton FC and Southampton FC at Goodison Park. Everton won 1-0. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

So good for the first quarter of the season and then so unbelievably bad.

We topped the Premier League having played some genuinely delightful stuff, but injuries struck, and a threadbare squad coupled with a lagging academy no longer brimming with talent, such a crisis would always dismantle us.

That being said, though, the slide has been inexcusable – Saints are rock-bottom of the 2021 form table having conceded significantly more goals than Sheffield United.

As such, we deserve to be where we are. We’re very fortunate that the three teams in the relegation zone have been as poor as they have been.

 

Is Hasenhuttl still the man to take Saints forward?

SOUTHAMPTON, ENGLAND - Monday, January 4, 2021: Southampton's manager Ralph Hasenhüttl during the FA Premier League match between Southampton FC and Liverpool FC at St Mary's Stadium. (Pic by Propaganda)

Ralph Hasenhuttl’s certainly not as unanimously loved by the fans as he was three or four months ago.

Another 9-0, some peculiar tactical decisions, late substitutions and an unacceptably bad period have all contributed towards some doubts among the Saints faithful.

It’s probably now a 65/35 split when it comes to the fans who want him in and those who want him out. I don’t think he’s doing a good job at the moment, but he’s not exactly been given the tools to succeed.

We shouldn’t be quite so low in the table, given the strength of our usual starting lineup, but the injury situation and dismal January transfer window have left him with a really tough task.

I understand why fans have lost patience, but I don’t think there’s a viable candidate who would surpass what he has achieved at the club thus far.

We are in a far better state now, even in a difficult time, than we were before Hasenhuttl.

We need a big summer, and he needs more quality at his disposal – that would be the case with any manager here.

 

Who have been Saints’ three best players this season?

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - Saturday, February 1, 2020: Liverpool's Georginio Wijnaldum (L) and Southampton's James Ward-Prowse during the FA Premier League match between Liverpool FC and Southampton FC at Anfield. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

The outstanding player has been James Ward-Prowse. He’s played every single minute and has contributed with eight goals and six assists.

He’s gone from strength to strength under Hasenhuttl and has been exceptional in front of the back four.

Everyone knows how good he is from set-pieces, but he deserves an awful lot more credit for his all-around game. There aren’t many more balanced, effective midfielders in the league.

Kyle Walker-Peters deserves a mention, too – £12 million is proving to be a real snip.

He’s brilliant going forward and displays such excellent control and guile whenever he plays, while he’s also ironed out a lot of the defensive frailties he demonstrated last year. We are a totally different team with him in it.

The third-best, for me, is Jannik Vestergaard.

He was pretty disastrous in his first two seasons here, but he’s been a player reborn this term, prompting interest from Tottenham and others across Europe.

His passing is immaculate and his decision-making has drastically improved. He gets my pick for third here, but Stuart Armstrong, Oriol Romeu and Che Adams also deserve mentions.

 

Have any individuals been poor?

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - Monday, March 1, 2021: Southampton's Nathan Redmond during the FA Premier League match between Everton FC and Southampton FC at Goodison Park. Everton won 1-0. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

Pretty much everyone apart from Ward-Prowse has had at least a couple of nightmares this term, in all honesty.

Nathan Redmond and Ryan Bertrand haven’t been too great this season, while the likes of Jan Bednarek, Alex McCarthy and Theo Walcott have dipped after really strong starts to the campaign.

I don’t think anyone has been absolutely terrible, but the collective collapses in second halves this season have led us to where we are.

 

Switching our attention to Liverpool, why do you think they have struggled?

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - Saturday, October 17, 2020: Liverpool’s Virgil van Dijk walks off injured during the FA Premier League match between Everton FC and Liverpool FC, the 237th Merseyside Derby, at Goodison Park. The game was played behind closed doors due to the UK government’s social distancing laws during the Coronavirus COVID-19 Pandemic. The game ended in a 2-2 draw. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

The long-term injuries to the centre-backs, primarily.

Losing Virgil van Dijk is a huge blow in itself, and to then see the likes of Joe Gomez and Joel Matip succumb to lengthy periods on the sidelines will always destabilise a team.

Fabinho moving out of midfield prevented Liverpool from really sustaining attacks, even if he was near-enough world-class at the back, such is his quality.

I think you are so much better with him sitting in front of the central defenders, whoever they may be.

Nevertheless, it’s undeniable that Liverpool have underachieved. The Premier League campaign has been a bit of a car crash and the away performance at Real Madrid was really bad.

Jurgen Klopp’s a wonderful manager but some decisions – Diogo Jota playing against Midtjylland in a dead rubber and then suffering a serious injury, for example – have been peculiar.

I don’t think any one individual is to blame, though. Plenty of players, notably Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino, have underwhelmed this season.

Klopp’s got a few things wrong, but the board could and should have backed him with a bit more in January. I think it’s a culmination of issues that will need resolving in the summer.

 

Do you think they will secure a top-four finish?

A frustrated and angry Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp has to find a way to get his side scoring again (Clive Brunskill/PA)

I’d say it’s a little unlikely now.

The fixtures are favourable enough, but then again, it’s the Fulhams, Newcastles and Burnleys that Liverpool have struggled with this season!

I think Leicester and Chelsea will be the two that join the Manchester clubs, but it’s still tight.

There’s no margin for error now and Liverpool will probably need to win every remaining game to usurp those currently in the reckoning.

 

Looking ahead to Saturday, who do you fear most for the Reds?

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - Saturday, April 10, 2021: Liverpool's Mohamed Salah celebrates after scoring the first equalising goal during the FA Premier League match between Liverpool FC and Aston Villa FC at Anfield. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

Always Mohamed Salah.

Liverpool have plenty of players who can hurt us, but Salah is the talisman. He’s an elite forward and an all-time Premier League great who deserves far more credit than he currently receives.

We don’t have a natural, fit left-back at the moment, unless Bertrand is a surprise inclusion in the lineup on Saturday, so he could be up against one of Mohammed Salisu or Jack Stephens, both of whom are centre-backs.

It’s a big opportunity for Salah to add to his tally.

 

Where do you see the key battles taking place?

LONDON, ENGLAND - Sunday, December 13, 2020: Liverpool's Sadio Mané looks dejected after the FA Premier League match between Fulham FC and Liverpool FC at Craven Cottage. The game ended in a 1-1 draw. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

Probably on the wings. Salah against Stephens or Salisu could get ugly, even if both of them have been reasonable when utilised at left-back in the past couple of games.

Mane has been way off it this season, but Walker-Peters bursts forward and leaves a lot of space in behind, which draws Bednarek out of position.

That could be something that our former winger exploits.

 

Finally, hit us with your prediction…

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - Sunday, July 5, 2020: Liverpool’s manager Jürgen Klopp during the FA Premier League match between Liverpool FC and Aston Villa FC at Anfield. The game was played behind closed doors due to the UK government’s social distancing laws during the Coronavirus COVID-19 Pandemic. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

Liverpool’s struggles against teams lower down the table, particularly at home, should provide a cause for optimism.

But this is such a big game, and without Danny Ings and Oriol Romeu, it’s hard to see Saints outdoing the Reds on Saturday.

A draw is possible, but it might be a case of trying to stay in the game for as long as possible.

I can see a 1-1, perhaps similar to the Newcastle draw you had a couple of weeks back, but 2-1 to Liverpool is what I’m predicting.

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