Firmino and Salah star again as Liverpool ease past Southampton
SOUTHAMPTON, England -- Three points on Liverpool 2-0 win vs. Southampton in the Premier League.
1. Second should be Liverpool's target
Numerous slip-ups have rendered Liverpool unable to pull away from rivals competing for a top-four place but, with the quality and proficiency of Mohamed Salah and Roberto Firmino, the final third of the season should be fixated upon securing the Premier League's runners-up spot and putting together a good run in the Champions League knockout rounds.
All eyes were on Virgil van Dijk in the build-up to his Southampton return, but it was Firmino and Salah who drew most of the attention once the game began. Both scored and created in a comfortable 2-0 victory that win pushes Liverpool up to third, just two points adrift of second-placed Manchester United.
Liverpool have been particularly strong on their travels this season and have scored a league-high 34 goals. At St Mary's, it took them just six minutes to net the 33rd: A simple yet devastating counter-attack saw a long punt find Salah, who squared for Firmino to make it 1-0.
The scorer brilliantly returned the favour to his provider for Liverpool's second shortly before half-time; the contender for assist of the season came by virtue of a one-two which saw Firmino deliver an exquisite backheel that put Salah through on goal to claim his 29th of the season in all competitions.
Liverpool are arriving at the business end of their campaign and a Champions League round-of-16 visit to Porto on Wednesday means squad management was on Klopp's agenda at Southampton; Jordan Henderson's omission from the squad was a manifestation of that
Heavy rotation around the festive period was designed for the purpose that Liverpool could fire on all cylinders when winter turned into spring and, while Man City are out of sight, that period arrives as Man United, Chelsea and Arsenal show signs of faltering.
2. Firmino shows his value once again
Some commentators would have you believe that Liverpool need to recruit an out-and-out striker in order to reach the next level, given that Firmino leads the frontline as a so-called "false nine."
But his goal at St Mary's on the weekend took his overall season tally to 20 and, with the Brazilian international having increased his scoring output every season under Klopp's management, the signs point to him continuing to become one of Europe's most complete forwards.
Firmino also contradicts any assumption that he is a South American who might not relish the rough and tumble of an English winter. It was cold and blustery on Sunday and Southampton's defenders were as physical as referee Martin Atkinson would allow, but Firmino appears to relish such circumstances.
Liverpool are keen to extend his stay at the club -- his current contract runs out in 2020 -- and, given his worth to Klopp and his teammates, the 26-year-old's status as an integral member of the Anfield squad should be recognised if a new deal is penned.
Heading into this season, Sadio Mane was billed as Liverpool's most important player, but injury and a loss of form means his goal tally remains in single digits. A drop-off from a key player in other teams might have devastating consequences, but Firmino and Salah have more than papered over the cracks.
3. Southampton's struggles
Mauricio Pellegrino's first six months in the Southampton job were similar to his short stint as a centre-half at Liverpool: underwhelming. But the turn of the year saw his side pick up results that keep have taken some of the heat off, for the time being at least.
In the eyes of some home fans, this game was a free-hit. Having lost just once in 2018 and with five winnable league fixtures upcoming, Southampton were given the chance to gamble and go with a nothing-to-lose mentality.
Indeed, the reality of dropping into the relegation zone -- resulting from Newcastle United's surprise win over Man United earlier in the day -- only heightened the attractiveness of an unlikely three points. But it was not to be and the defeat meant a club record of seven home Premier League games without victory was equaled.
Club-record signing Guido Carrillo, a striker formerly of AS Monaco, was given his first Southampton start in the hope he could add much-needed firepower, but he only tested Loris Karius on one occasion.
Claude Puel, Pellegrino's predecessor, was dismissed after a solitary season and there were cries from the home support of "you don't know what you're doing" when Shane Long replaced James Ward-Prowse. The signs are ominous for the St Mary's boss, even if his 18th-placed team do manage to avoid relegation.
Glenn is ESPN FC's Liverpool correspondent. You can follow him on Twitter: @GlennPrice94.