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Mar 1, 2014

Poetry in motion as Reds lay down a marker

Liverpool fans have revived the old '70s Boney M classic "Brown Girl In The Ring," or at least chants to that tune, as a nod towards the team's recent revival of fortunes. The more conservative element have kept to the far safer rewrite "We are Liverpool, tra-la-la-la-la" up until now, but by the end of an efficient 3-0 win at Southampton, the more arrogant "we're gonna win the league" version grew louder and louder and louder.

The first text I received after the final whistle read simply: "why not us." For a man who has turned pessimism into an art form, I was genuinely stumped for an answer. I'm beginning to believe one doesn't exist.

- Cox: Three Things- Southampton v Liverpool - Report: Liverpool climb up to second

Southampton is not a happy hunting ground for Liverpool, when it was The Dell or now that it's St Mary's. Bill Shankly once called them an alehouse team, in reference to their '60s team's lack of refinement, and I honestly don't think they've ever forgiven Liverpool for it. It's almost like the men from the south coast made it their personal mission to make life as awkward for the Reds as possible.

Much was made of the home side's chance to make it three straight wins against the visitors. A lot less was made of the fact they'd not been in the Premier League for seven years, which is largely why Liverpool hadn't won there for 11, but once they'd returned, the Saints had simply picked up where they left off. Before now.

This was an important game for Liverpool for many reasons. The gaps and nervousness evident in the Swansea City match meant all eyes were on the defence for what was assumed to be a far sterner test. The last time it had conceded three goals, against Stoke City, fans were dumbfounded to watch them present the easiest of chances to Aston Villa's Gabriel Agbonlahor in the opening minute of the very next game.

And after Brendan Rodgers had offered a rather terse response to a press inquiry about Pepe Reina's future at Anfield, there was also bound to be a closer scrutiny of Simon Mignolet, who also looked a little rattled against Swansea.

This time out Liverpool seemed determined to keep the opening minutes of this game calm and quiet. Joe Allen, an effective and busy substitute the week before, began this match in place of Raheem Sterling. There were a few mutters about whether Philippe Coutinho had done enough to keep his place, bearing in mind that he had also been erratic and reckless in several away games recently.

The two hours before the match were spent praying for favourable results elsewhere, with Everton still in the running for fourth and Arsenal and Chelsea only slightly ahead. Fulham gave little resistance to Jose Mourinho's men, and Everton beat West Ham. Arsenal, however, were playing at their nightmare ground, the Britannia Stadium, and Stoke duly obliged Liverpool with a narrow win. It left the Reds with an excellent opportunity to leave fourth spot for the first time in months and go second. What an incentive.

It's strain enough on the nerves to go through your own team's trials, but biting your nails through another team's tribulations is going to put a few Liverpool fans into the hospital, especially the way the Reds usually go about their business. A fortnight's break has come just at the right time for everyone.

Despite an early lack of control, often involving Coutinho, it was the visitors who created the first real chance when Sturridge ran through. Bizarrely for such an in-form striker, he sought to pass rather than shoot, and the opportunity was gone. It summed up a hesitant performance from the No. 15 on a day he'd wanted to score in his ninth consecutive league game.

Beating Southampton was going to be a tall enough order even if Sturridge had been on fire. The first goal came from a fortunate ricochet into the path of Luis Suarez, who had so little time to think his instincts took over and he found the corner. This was the perfect start, but after that, the visitors seemed hell-bent on throwing it away.

Adam Lallana was being given too much room, and there seemed little effort to correct this obvious flaw in the game plan. He'd hit the post and was also providing other half-chances for his colleagues. John Flanagan's relative inexperience saw him being caught out of position too often for comfort, and Luke Shaw was getting good chances to deliver quality crosses. Southampton nearly made it 1-1 but were denied by a very good save from Mignolet, who was thankfully looking more assured.

Half-time came as a slight relief. Liverpool were still in front, but the match could not continue in this vein if they were to take all three points. It was looking like the West Bromwich Albion match all over again: a narrow lead, not many chances to increase it and Coutinho just having one of those days.

The second half began as edgily as the first had ended, Sturridge's performance typified by a rather feeble dive that fooled nobody. Rodgers did not wait long to make the change, and it was the obvious one: Sterling for the hapless Coutinho. Few substitutions have worked so well so quickly, and it was Suarez again who made the key move. A quick turn, an instant glance up and a calm pass to Sterling for the easiest of chances to make it 2-0.That usually means a bit of breathing space and a chance to pick off the opposition on the break, but with this Liverpool side, you can never tell. There were numerous attempts at the "killer" ball, which Southampton kept intercepting. Fortunately, the home team were doing little with this possession and their heads began to drop. Liverpool were now beginning to make the better chances. Suarez even tried an audacious corner, which nearly beat Artur Boruc at his near post.

Steven Gerrard was beginning to get the better of Lallana, who had faded as a force once Liverpool went two up. The captain ran himself into the ground, covering brilliantly for a rampaging Flanagan one minute and committing a late tackle to receive a booking the next, leaving the home side with an innocuous free kick inside their own half. Ungainly and certainly not sportsmanlike but absolutely essential with a title at stake.

The home supporters summoned up one last growl about how Liverpool were, ahem, possibly not going to win a trophy this season (they expressed this in rather indelicate language!), but Suarez had one last trick up his sleeve to shut them up, which resulted in a penalty and a slightly flattering 3-0 score line.

For a team that had looked so porous and on edge the previous week, this was a substantial improvement. The defence still did not receive all the cover it was entitled to, but that mattered little as Martin Skrtel and Daniel Agger were excellent and the home side could not convert the few chances they created. As Sturridge's standards slipped -- understandably so after weeks of excellence -- this was an opportune moment for Suarez to rediscover some of the guile and perseverance that seemed to have gone missing from his game. It's amazing what a difference a goal makes and how frightening a partnership this is. I'm struggling to think of any game in which they've both been poor.

Liverpool have a poor record at Stoke but overcame them. It's even worse at Southampton, and they've been vanquished, too. Next up is the mother of all hoodoos: Old Trafford. Chelsea's ultra-efficiency and Manchester City's games in hand might yet conspire to dampen the revivalist fervour at Anfield, but the Reds have been told so often this season that their "bright spell" couldn't possibly last, it almost seems like they've simply stopped listening.

Play like this for much longer, and it won't just be '70s songs that get a revival. That decade's success might also be exhumed. Poetry in motion, indeed.

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