FOR all the craft of Nicolas Anelka, graft of Emile Heskey and guile of Jari Litmanen, Liverpool resemble only pretenders to the Premiership title when shorn of the shooting star that is Michael Owen. Liverpool had their chances and plenty of possession but without Owen at St Mary's last night, they lacked the requisite cutting edge to trouble Gordon Strachan's sprightly Southampton.
This victory was no fluke; Southampton were well-organised, well-motivated and always looked likely to make openings, particularly via the flanks. James Beattie converted the first, a 62nd-minute penalty bringing him an 11th goal of the season, before John Arne Riise headed in an own goal - his first touch since arriving from the bench.
As well as tempering Liverpool's championship ambitions, this triumph catapulted Strachan's side up the table and put them in a highly competitive mood for the visit of Manchester United on Sunday. With Beattie, Marian Pahars, Wayne Bridge and Paul Jones in this sort of vibrant form, the champions will need to tread carefully.
Beattie's goal, when it came after 62 minutes, had not been unexpected. Southampton had exuded menacing movement, particularly when their full-backs and midfielders broke forward, and when the fast-moving Matt Oakley was brought down by Sami Hyypia, Beattie made no mistake from the spot.
This was confirmation of a more incisive approach by Southampton, who had hinted at a genuine forward threat in the opening half but not delivered. For all Southampton's brimming confidence in possession, particularly when Bridge or Pahars were raiding forward, the best chances of a scoreless but not unattractive first half had fallen to Liverpool.
Anelka, all sleek panther movement down the channels, was a constant threat on the counter, the Frenchman peeling away to the right and then chasing the ball slid down the corridors by his team-mates.
With Owen unable to shake off an ankle problem, the attacking onus rested on Anelka's shoulders, although Heskey arrived shortly before the hour while Litmanen buzzed around brightly in the no-man's land between midfield and attack.
The Finn created the half's most promising moment in the 36th minute, heading the ball into the path of Anelka, whose meaty right-footed volley was tipped over by Paul Jones, Southampton's keeper.
Anelka seems to have developed the more creative elements of his game since he was last espied on these shores, acting the fleet-footed finisher for Arsenal. Perhaps he has become even more team-minded, a possibility that will surprise his erstwhile club-mates at Highbury, but Anelka certainly appeared eager to bring colleagues into play at St Mary's.
Just before the half-hour, Anelka muscled past Paul Williams to set up Litmanen, whose shot was deflected over. Litmanen himself had played the architect minutes before when he combined with Vladimir Smicer to fashion an opening for Danny Murphy, whose goalbound drive was blocked by Claus Lundekvam.
Yet Liverpool were lacking a cutting edge and also a strong physical presence in midfield so after 58 minutes Phil Thompson removed the ineffectual Smicer for Heskey, who galloped on to assume the left-midfield responsibilities.
Liverpool never exuded complete security at the back against Strachan's brisk-passing side, as was eventually seen in the second half. His managerial philosophy influenced by his productive days on the wing, Strachan remains committed to width and Bridge certainly stretched visitors who have coveted the Under-21 full-back's skills in the past.
In central midfield, Anders Svensson kept attacks ticking over with short, simple passes. Pahars was also impressing, either linking up with midfielders, breaking forward himself or looking to feed off Beattie's knockdowns.
Pahars saw a shot blocked and Paul Telfer's follow-up held by Jerzy Dudek. Southampton were refusing to be overawed by Liverpool's galaxy of stars, who were constantly hustled by Strachan's hard-working players.
Despite the introduction of Heskey, it was Southampton who almost scored but Chris Marsden's close-range effort was stopped by Dudek. But when Oakley was clearly caught by Hyypia, Beattie swept Southampton ahead.
Worse soon befell Liverpool. When Marsden teased the ball down the left, Pahars sprinted on and scooped over a huge cross which poor Riise headed up and over Dudek.
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