By Wayne Veysey at St Mary’s Stadium
Liverpool’s hopes of gatecrashing the Champions League places are almost over after being pummelled 3-1 by Southampton in a riveting encouter.
Brendan Rodgers’ team were swept away by the aggression of the relegation strugglers in driving rain down on the south coast.
Goals from Morgan Schneiderlin and Rickie Lambert within the opening 33 minutes was due reward for the early dominance of the hosts, who took full advantage of shambolic defending from the Merseysiders.
Phillipe Coutinho gave Liverpool hope by pulling one back on the cusp of half-time but the off-colour Reds failed to make their marginal second-half improvement count.
With 10 minutes remaining, the excellent Jay Rodriguez slalomed through the porous visiting rearguard and sealed the win with a finish at the second attempt.
In front of a Premier League-record attendance at the stadium of 32,070, the 3-1 triumph helped Southampton climb seven points clear of the bottom three and has surely sealed their top-flight status.
Liverpool end the day in seventh place, three points behind Everton and seven adrift of fourth-placed Chelsea, who have two games in hand on the Merseysiders.
Rodgers made two changes from the team that beat Tottenham six days earlier, with Martin Skrtel replacing the absent Jamie Carragher and Joe Allen coming in for the benched Lucas Leiva. For Southampton, Nathaniel Clyne replaced Jose Fonte in defence.
The culling of Lucas appeared even more perverse following an opening half completely dominated by the home side.
Mauricio Pochettino set his team up to attack the visitors and it paid rich dividends early on as Liverpool’s defence and midfield were taken to the cleaners by the aggression of the hosts.
The excellent Schneiderlin conducted the red tidal wave from his central midfield station, and his untracked run led to the opener after six minutes.
Gaston Ramirez’s inviting cross was nodded down at the back post by Jay Rodriguez and Schneiderlin dashed in ahead of the floundering Daniel Agger to flick the ball in.
Southampton continued to keep their foot slammed down on the accelerator and created a glut of chances as they took advantage of a Liverpool completely lacking in balance and fortitude.
Shortly after Brad Jones had saved well with his legs to keep out Lambert, the boyhood Liverpool fan made amends with his 13th league goal of the season.
There was a degree of fortune to the 33rd minute free-kick but it was nothing that the hosts did not deserve, given the dominance of their play. Lambert’s 30-yard curled set-piece contrived to hit Daniel Sturridge, fly through a gap in the wall and into the left side of the net while Jones stood rooted to the spot.
Despite their defensive woes, Liverpool looked threatening going forward and, soon after Coutinho fluffed his lines when one-on-one with Artur Boruc, the little Brazilian gave his team hope with his second goal in four games for his new club.
After Sturridge’s shot had been blocked following a smart header by Steven Gerrard, Coutinho kept his composure to slam home the loose ball on the stroke of half-time.
It gave Liverpool a foothold in the game that they scarcely deserved and Rodgers responded at the break by reversing his selection that had badly backfired, replacing the ponderous Allen with Lucas.
This brought greater aggression and balance to the visitors, and they were a far more effective force in the second period.
But, with the game on a knife-edge, Southampton continued to create opportunities and Rodriguez made left Liverpool pay for more shambolic defending after 80 minutes.