Odds: Southampton 7/5, The Draw 23/10, Liverpool 37/20
After the captivating diversion of eliminating hated rivals Manchester United from the Europa League in midweek, it’s back to bread and butter for Liverpool.
Jurgen Klopp could hardly have asked for an opponent more tailor-made to focus his troops attention on the Premier League than Southampton.
The Saints sit one place above them in sixth by virtue of goal difference, but the Anfield side have two games in hand – victory in both would catapult them right into the Champions League qualification reckoning.
Liverpool have shared a ding-dong head to head with Ronald Koeman’s side since the latter’s return to the top flight, swapping home wins in 2012/13, then away successes in each of the following two seasons.
Results this term suggest the Reds are finally getting the better of their south coast adversaries, breaking the away-win trend with a 1-1 draw on Merseyside in October, before thrashing them 6-1 at St Mary’s in the Capital One Cup.
As a result, the Anfield outfit will travel southwards with hope in their hearts, but whether they will command the requisite spring in their step is another matter.
This showdown will be their fifth game since February 28, but only Southampton’s third outing in the same timeframe.
Well rested after a rot-stopping victory over Stoke eight days previously, they will be hell bent on revenge for the liberties Liverpool took with them in the League Cup.
Win, Lose or Draw?
A common complaint of Brendan Rodgers during the Northern Irishman’s Liverpool tenure was his enduring refusal to recognise the added defensive chops Lucas Leiva brought to his side.
Last season they lost just 15% of the 26 games he started, compared to 41% of the 32 in which he didn’t make the XI, for instance.
It should follow that his absence through injury for this vital fixture is a major handicap to Liverpool’s attempts.
Yet, somehow, in 2015/16, the Brazilian’s presence has ceased making his side harder to beat – they’ve lost 38% of the 24 outings he has started.
Instead, bizarrely, his absence from the first XI now seems to render his teammates unbeatable.
Liverpool have played 24 times this term with the Brazilian on the bench or in the stands and have yet to lose, winning a dozen times and drawing a dozen more.
The latter result has to be more likely here, with the hosts welcoming Victor Wanyama back from a lengthy suspension following his red card against West Ham in early February.
That dismissal came during the penultimate outing of a run of six games without conceding a goal and the Saints quickly lost their way, failing to win three of the first four games in its wake.
With the Kenyan bulldozer reintegrated into Koeman’s midfield, a red-zoned Liverpool may find victory is just beyond them.
Lucas or not, Liverpool’s long-derided defence is no longer the hole in their bucket it once was and it’s eight games since they last shipped more than once.
With the return of twin Southampton bulwarks Wanyama and captain Jose Fonte bolstering the home rearguard, a low-scoring encounter could be in the offing.
Scoring goals has been a real problem of late for the Saints too, further swelling chances of unders-backers being rewarded here.
Prior to Graziano Pelle’s double last time out, they’d failed to net more than once an outing for seven matches straight.
Who will do the damage?
Liverpool will not be pleased to hear that Sadio Mane’s red card against Stoke has been overturned on appeal, meaning he is clear to feature at St Mary’s.
The Senegalese hitman hasn’t found the net since bagging the opener against them in the Capital One Cup back in early December, but was his second strike in as many starts against them.
Liverpool and Southampton are the division’s highest and join-second top scorers in the quarter hour time slot between 60 and 75 minutes.