Football Features

“A special group of players” – Free agents lead the way as much-changed Liverpool beat Southampton to keep title race alive

By Muhammad Butt

Published: 22:14, 17 May 2022

Joel Matip led a rotated Liverpool side to victory at Southampton to take the Premier League title race to the final day.

Alisson and Ibrahima Konaté were the only starters from the FA Cup final to retain their places as Jurgen Klopp made nine changes to freshen up his heavily fatigued squad.

But it was two free signings that led the way for the Reds: James Milner and especially Joel Matip.

Milner, a late sub in the FA Cup final, started in central midfield and put in a fantastic performance. An injury to Joel Gomez forced him to right-back where he had to fill in and he did that with aplomb as well.

It was a really impressive display from Milner as the 36 year-old created a game-high 6 chances, making him the oldest player to have created 5+ chances in a Premier League game since Paul Scholes a decade ago against QPR.

After the game, Milner exalted the players who came in for tonight’s game: “The guys are incredible, the guys who maybe haven’t have played as much but you should see them in training every day, it’s incredible the level they’re playing, and you can see it when they need to step up they have.”

Milner was particularly impressed with the level of Liverpool’s squad and their mental approach. “It’s a special group of players, special football club. Fight to the end, keep going, take it as far as we can.”

On the sluggish start and the difficulty in overcoming that, Milner said: “It’s easy to make excuses, obviously he emotion of the weekend, how much we put into the weekend and then having to come here so soon after, going one down.”

“But y’know there’s no excuses with these guys, they just keep pushing it and keep going and it was great to get in front and try to sit out and keep the ball as much as possible to save energy.”

On his own versatility switching to right-back, Milner said: “it’s not my favourite switch in the world to be honest but y’know, what’s needed.”

When asked how Liverpool approach the final day, Milner stuck to Liverpool’s party line: “try and win our game. That’s all we can do, try and win our game,” Milner then gave insight into how Liverpool turned the corner mid-season: “that’s all we’ve been trying to do since, y’know, we sort of had a reset in January when we were so far behind and we went for it and had a mental reset if you like and really pushed.”

Speaking on the quality of Manchester City, Milner was extremely generous in his praise of Pep Guardiola’s side: “y’know they’re an incredible team to go up against and whatever happens this season we’ve done ourselves proud, but you’re coming up against a top team like Man City so all we can do is try and win our games and try and keep the pressure on right to the end.”

“All we can do is take it to the last game, which we’ve done.”

On Liverpool’s remaining Quadruple dream, Milner concluded with: “hopefully we can have two more big performances this season.”

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As much as James Milner and his incredible chance creating versatility, Joel Matip was the real star of the show. The Cameroon international has had a magnificent season for the Reds, arguably being their best-performing defender across the whole of 2021/22 as Virgil van Dijk needed time to get back to his best self after his injury woe.

Matip has needed no such time and basically been in top form since the start, commanding the back-line as he did today with an impressive team-high 3 interceptions. And lately has even added goals to his game. Clutch ones at that. He scored the crucial equaliser as Liverpool came from behind to beat Aston Villa last time out.

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And today Matip made it two consecutive games with a goal. With Klopp’s rotated Reds playing well but struggling to break down Southampton outside of one liquid attack in the first-half that saw Takumi Minamino cancel out Nathan Redmond’s deflected opener, it was Matip who stood tall for the side.

Well, stooped low, in reality. Just over an hour into the game Kostas Tsimikas sent in a looping corner which was poorly cleared at the near-post in what amounted to a flick-on. The ball flew in Joel Matip’s direction and he had no time to do much except stoop his head down low and simply make contact.

And what contact! The ball looped off Matip’s head, rising over the Southampton defenders, outside of the reach of goalkeeper Alex McCarthy, and into the back of the net. 1-2 Liverpool and another crucial goal in this tight title race delivered by Joel Matip. The centre-back is keeping Liverpool in the title race single-handedly! He’s got as many goals as Salah in the last 10 games across all competitions!