On England's south coast - as low on the map as he can go - Gerard Houllier has endured a double of rock bottom moments. After the FA Cup exit at Portsmouth, this 2-0 defeat sent Houllier's team to the murky depths of eighth place in the Premiership. Along the same stretch of cliffs and sea, Southampton's new manager, Paul Sturrock, is on the rise.
Ninety minutes into the job at St Mary's Stadium, Sturrock, who has replaced his old Scotland team-mate Gordon Strachan as head Saint, doubled his new team's average of a goal per game, courtesy of second-half scores from James Beattie and Kevin Phillips. But Sturrock's triumphant debut was a mortal blow for Liverpool, who at least have a game in hand on Charlton in the increasingly tortured chase for the fourth Champions League place. The impact will be felt, also, by Michael Owen, who followed his penalty miss at Pompey three weeks ago with a second unconvincing effort from the spot. Amends can be made when Portsmouth travel to Anfield on Wednesday.
Though Liverpool trudged north regretting Owen's miss and bemoaning a linesman's failure to flag for offside for Beattie's 51st-minute goal, the truth is that this great club are making heavy weather even of the battle for fourth. Charlton, the current best of the rest, are 27 points adrift of Arsenal, which gives you some idea of how peripheral this race within a race has become. Houllier must know that Owen's problems from the penalty spot are a symptom rather than a cause of the team's malaise. "Sometimes he wins you games so I'm not going to criticise him," Houllier said while reaffirming the England striker's status as automatic penalty taker. "I like the man. It's not a problem."
Before Southampton's call came through, Sturrock, 47, had expected "to be welcoming Swindon to Plymouth", and instead found himself plotting against a club who have won four European Cups - with a south coast derby against Portsmouth to come. This season the Saints have gone back to being mere vicars in the Premiership's hierarchy, and the main cause of their decline has been poor goal- scoring statistics, which contrasts sharply with Sturrock's startling record at Plymouth Argyle.
Along the coast, the team who Sturrock steered from 21st in Division Three to Second Division champions-elect are currently professional football's top scorers with 72. Reverse those figures before yesterday's victory and you had Southampton's haul in an indifferent League campaign. None of Southampton's 27 had come from yesterday's four starting midfielders - and an average of a goal a game was a poor return for a team who reached this season's UEFA Cup.
Beattie's weak shot across the Liverpool goal after five minutes was true to the club's recent form of tentative finishing, and it was almost half an hour before the Saints sniffed another chance, with Phillips narrowly failing to reach Rory Delap's subtle volley into the box. Before Southampton roused themselves, Harry Kewell drew an acrobatic full-length save from Antti Niemi, and Steven Gerrard curled a shot round Niemi's left post after being set up beautifully by Kewell, who would have been on the Liverpool bench had Bruno Cheyrou not injured an ankle in the warm-up.
Moments before half-time, Owen was through one-on-one for the first time in the match but was thwarted by the legs of Niemi - surely one of the Premiership's best and most under-rated keepers.
Sturrock's half-time team talks are plainly from the old Scottish school, for when Southampton re-emerged their torpor suddenly lifted. With referee Dermot Gallagher ignoring Liverpool's valid claim for offside, Beattie collected the ball at the end of a 50-yard one-two with Phillips and scooped it over Jerzy Dudek, who was restored to Houllier's first XI after Chris Kirkland broke a wrist in training in the umpteenth accident of his short career.
One hopes Pele was watching El-Hadji Diouf's subsequent wild swipe at goal, which almost went out for a throw-in. Football's greatest artist somehow managed to convince himself that Diouf is among the best 120 players in the game's history, but not even Pele would have defended that designation when the so-called Senegalese 'Serial Killer' was withdrawn in favour of Emile Heskey on the hour (a mercy killing, perhaps). The effect of Liverpool's continuing mediocrity on Owen's confidence was evident when he prodded a parried shot from Gerrard against a post - and then stroked his penalty on to Niemi's outstretched palm.
The punishment was swift and brutal. Five minutes before the end, Phillips, part-tackled by John Arne Riise, fired an arrow from 25 yards which took a deflection off the Norwegian's foot and looped over Dudek. "I think the turning point was when the linesman made a huge error. Beattie's goal was offside - and even their people knew that," Houllier protested. "How can you miss that? It was not like it was half a yard. Their goalkeeper got man of the match. What does that tell you?"
For Houllier and Liverpool the misery deepens, like the rain-lashed ocean to the south. Sturrock, meanwhile, is the toast of the coast.
Southampton: Niemi, Dodd, Lundekvam, Michael Svensson, Le Saux (Higginbotham 44), Telfer, Prutton, Delap, McCann (Anders Svensson 67), Beattie, Phillips (Tessem 90).
Subs Not Used: Smith, Pahars.
Booked: McCann, Telfer, Lundekvam.
Goals: Beattie 51, Phillips 85.
Liverpool: Dudek, Biscan, Henchoz (Riise 75), Hyypia, Carragher, Kewell, Gerrard, Hamann, Diouf (Heskey 60), Baros, Owen.
Subs Not Used: Luzi Bernardi, Traore, Murphy.
Ref: D Gallagher (Oxfordshire).
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