Shane Long drives superb Southampton past Liverpool into EFL Cup final
For Southampton, it was a night they will cherish for a long time and a victory that will go straight into the list of great occasions in the club’s history. Liverpool, the eight-times winners, had been knocked out and over two legs what a tribute to Claude Puel’s disciplined, talented players that they made it feel like a trick of the mind their opponents were actually the Premier League’s highest scorers.
The prize is a Wembley final on 26 February and, on this evidence, Southampton will fancy their chances even if the likely opponents are Manchester United and a modern-day re-enactment of the 1976 FA Cup final. Why, after all, be afraid after this kind of heroic performance? Southampton had not conceded a goal in 180 minutes against a team that apparently wants to be thought of as title challengers. Liverpool simply ran out of ideas before the final, decisive blow from Shane Long in stoppage time, scoring from a break-away attack that started all the way back in his own penalty area.
By the end, it was difficult to remember Southampton were having to make do without their best defender, Virgil van Dijk, and still adjusting after their previous captain, José Fonte, defected to West Ham. Everything was in place for Jürgen Klopp’s team – under the floodlights, with the volume turned up – for a classic Liverpool comeback only to come up against a team that defended stoically, counterattacked to great effect and, more than anything, showed the force of personality that might not usually be expected for a team with their limited experience of the big occasion.
Klopp had shoehorned Daniel Sturridge, Philippe Coutinho, Roberto Firmino and Adam Lallana into the same forward line but the most impressive attacker was actually Nathan Redmond, scorer of the only goal in the first leg. Liverpool were not short of effort but they did lack creative ideas and that has been a familiar theme in their encounters with Southampton this season. Three times they have played one another and on each occasion Liverpool have failed to score. Klopp, to give him his due, accepted Southampton deserved to be in the final.
The winning team were clapped off by the fans who hung around at the end of a bone-chilling night and it would have been immensely cruel if Divock Origi’s exaggerated fall had persuaded the referee, Martin Atkinson, to award a penalty just before Long, a half-time substitute, delivered the most important kick of the night. Shortly before, Long had blocked a shot at the other end with his upper arm and perhaps Klopp had a point when he argued it ought to have been a penalty. Otherwise, the closest Liverpool came to a goal stemmed from a mistake by Fraser Forster nine minutes into the second half. Forster made a terrible hash of Emre Can’s 20-yard shot before the goalkeeper rescued himself with a brilliant, one-handed save, clawing the ball away from his goal-line.
Liverpool could also reflect on the volleyed chance that Sturridge put into the Kop just at the point of the second half when the home team finally appeared to remember there was a Wembley final at stake. For the most part, however, it was not the onslaught that might have been anticipated. There was a good balance to the way Southampton defended in numbers and broke at speed. They were the better team in the opening 45 minutes and, similar to the first leg, could have made the night a lot easier for themselves with some better finishing. Dusan Tadic had the outstanding chance of the first half, requiring a fine save from Loris Karius, and Redmond’s direct running was a prominent feature.
There was one awkward moment early on when Jack Stephens, playing the biggest game of his professional life, tried to play the ball back to Forster and succeeded only in kicking it out for a corner. Stephens, a 22-year-old whose career has been largely taken up with loan spells at Swindon Town and Coventry City, was playing because of Van Dijk’s ankle injury. Yet he quickly recovered and can reflect on a fine night. Oriol Romeu and Steven Davis, both vastly underrated players, were operating just in front of Southampton’s defence and there were some splendid performances as well from Cédric Soares, Maya Yoshida and Ryan Bertrand.
“Attack, attack, attack,” was the plea from the Kop and Liverpool pinned back their opponents during the last half an hour. Southampton had to ride their luck at times. Yet nobody could say it was a lucky victory. It was a triumph for organisation, resilience and togetherness, culminating in the decisive moment, 91 minutes in, when everyone inside the stadium knew it was over. Josh Sims, one of their substitutes, carried the ball upfield, running at a thinly-manned defence. Long took aim with his right boot, firing a diagonal shot past Karius, and Southampton had reached their first final in this competition since 1979.
Hull focused on Mason not Manchester United
Hull will be without the departing winger Robert Snodgrass and the centre-back Curtis Davies for the second leg of their EFL Cup semi-final against Manchester United.
Snodgrass, for whom the Premier League strugglers have accepted a £10m bid from Burnley, is currently sidelined with a muscle strain, while Davies sustained a hamstring injury in Sunday’s defeat at Chelsea. Marco Silva is hoping to receive international clearance in time for the Liverpool loanee Lazar Markovic to make his debut, but Ryan Mason is recovering in hospital after fracturing his skull at Stamford Bridge.
Mason is currently making “excellent progress” in St Mary’s Hospital in London after surgery on Sunday night to repair his fractured skull, sustained during Hull’s defeat at Chelsea earlier in the day, but Silva said the incident has put a different perspective on the cup semi-final and his challenge to keep the club in the Premier League.
“At this moment we need to forget everything,” Silva told a press conference before United’s visit to the KCom Stadium. “The most important is the player and his family, the other things are not important.”
Hull return to London at the weekend for their FA Cup clash at Fulham and Silva said he would take the opportunity to visit Mason before Sunday’s fourth-round tie. “Yes. After the game it’s impossible for me because everything is fast,” Silva said. “Our staff will be dealing with the players. It’s not easy in this moment and the player has visitors, but sure on Saturday I will be there. It’s important to support the player and his family, of course it’s not an easy moment for us, the team. But we need to be strong, to be together, to keep the players together and support Ryan – that’s the most important [thing].”
Silva is keen to bring in new players before the transfer window closes did must move quickly to bring in replacements before the transfer window closes and confirmed Genk’s Leon Bailey was on his radar. “We will try,” Silva added. “He’s not an easy player to get, but we will try. We will see.”
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