England recall John Barnes was given the boo-boy treatment again as Liverpool's 100 per cent winning start to the season continued at Southampton.
But the 30-year-old, controversially reinstated in the international squad by Terry Venables, answered them in deadly fashion with his first goal of the season 12 minutes from time. Barnes hardly merited the full force of The Dell taunts for his part in the build-up to Liverpool's opening goal, almost inevitably scored by Robbie Fowler, the in-form teenager's fifth in three games. They howled for handball as Barnes used his chest to turn a 21st minute cross into the path of full-back Stig Bjornebye. As Saints froze in appeal, the Norwegian drove it forward and Steve McManaman flicked it on for the 19-year-old to race clear from half-way. Bruce Grobbelaar, facing the team with which he won 13 major trophies before his summer free-transfer release, tried to close on him, but Fowler shot through his legs.
The home fans cried "cheat" - an echo of Barnes' Wembley treatment two seasons ago. But with England chief scout Ted Buxton in the stands he ignored it to concentrate on his battle with Matthew Le Tissier for a starting role against the Americans. The Southampton captain had scored five goals in the two Premiership meetings with Liverpool last season.
But it seemed no contest in the first half as Barnes, leaner and sharper now, revelled behind a rejuvenated Liverpool attack. He echoed the better times in his varied past with delicate flicks and accurate passes.
But a defiant Grobbelaar and the wastefulness of players like Jamie Redknapp and Steve McManaman, whose finishing does not match their approach work, ensured the expected rout did not materialise.
It looked even more likely when Southampton, who had conceded five goals at Newcastle, lost cool central defender Ken Monkou with concussion, suffered making the brave 37th minute diving header which just went wide.
But Alan Ball reorganised superbly at half-time and a Liverpool side which had scored nine goals in its first two games, spent much of the second half practising its defensive skills, with Barnes increasingly anonymous and Le Tissier to the fore.
The Guernsey play-maker, booked for a foul on Bjornebye, showed plenty of commitment - and his skill set up a chance for Nicky Banger whose shot was blocked by Neil Ruddock. Le Tissier latched on to the loose ball to crack a vicious low shot that fully tested goalkeeper David James.
Southampton appealed in vain for handball decisions against Steve Nicol and former Saint Neil Ruddock in the penalty area, but again they got short change from Cornish referee Martin Bodenham.
But just when they had forgotten him, Barnes popped up again to clinch Liverpool's first win at The Dell since 1988. He picked the ball up on the edge of the area, drifted wide of Benali and Charlton and switched the ball onto his right foot before placing it wide of Grobbelaar's dive and low into the far left-hand corner.
Liverpool boss Roy Evans hailed England's rejuvenated Barnes as "like having a brand new player. It's all down to him," said Evans. "He's the man who has put himself back in the frame by his fitness and his hard work. We're delighted with him. He has a different role now. He's more inhibited and has more defensive duties. But there are times when he can break forward and he showed he can still do his stuff."
But Southampton manager Alan Ball claimed Barnes' strike was "lucky", saying: "It was a cruel twist for us to lose 2-0. He was very fortunate in front of goal. Its ricocheted right into his path off two of our players and he's dug it into the ground; he's not struck it as sweetly as he wanted to. Liverpool will say it was a good goal. I'll call it lucky."
"We didn't fire on all cylinders," said Evans. "We should have put the game out of their reach by half-time. They then put us under the pressure and we were delighted to see the second goal, it gave us breathing space. We didn't live up to the first two games, but you can't expect great performances every time. And even when we were under the cosh, I was pleased with the attitude and determination."
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