Advantage Southampton as Liverpool struggle without key players
SOUTHAMPTON, England -- Three points from Southampton's 1-0 win vs. Liverpool in the EFL Cup semifinal first leg.
1. Southampton miss chances against disappointing Liverpool
Liverpool can count themselves fortunate that they are still in the EFL Cup semifinal after avoiding a heavy first-leg defeat against Southampton at St Mary's.
But with a trip to Manchester United looming on Sunday, Jurgen Klopp will be concerned by the cracks beginning to show in his squad after a game that could have ended with Liverpool on the wrong end of a four- or five-goal defeat.
When they have their strongest team available, Liverpool are a match for any team in the country and arguably the most exciting to watch.
But without key players, their performance levels drop off alarmingly, as they did when drawing at Sunderland last week and now here at Southampton, where Claude Puel's team dominated and were unlucky only to win 1-0.
The return of Philippe Coutinho as a second-half substitute was at least one piece of good news for Klopp, but Liverpool will once again be without Sadio Mane at Old Trafford due to international commitments and both Joel Matip and Jordan Henderson are doubtful for the clash against Jose Mourinho's in-form United.
Without Mane, Liverpool lack pace and movement, with Daniel Sturridge lacking the desire and work ethic of his absent teammate. Meanwhile, neither Emre Can nor Lucas Leiva possess Henderson's energy and leadership in midfield, while the back four is unconvincing without Matip at its heart.
Few teams can survive and prosper without their best players, but the mark of champions is the ability to do just that and Liverpool have yet to show it.
Southampton were simply too good for Liverpool in every area and the worry for Klopp will be that United, on the back of nine successive wins, will pose an even sterner test. The challenge for Liverpool is to prove they are more than just 11 top players.
2. Impressive Karius redeems himself
Loris Karius became the latest Liverpool goalkeeper to pay the price for costly errors when he was dropped from Premier League duty by Jurgen Klopp after one mistake too many last month.
The German goalkeeper, a £4.7m summer signing from Mainz, had been signed to replace Simon Mignolet as first choice, with Klopp making it clear that the new man would be his No. 1. But too many errors cost Karius and he looked set for a long spell in the wilderness when Mignolet returned in fine form.
But while the Belgian will almost certainly be in goal in Liverpool travel to Manchester United on Sunday, Karius' display against Southampton reminded that Klopp has recruited a promising, if not polished, young goalkeeper.
Karius made two crucial saves to deny Nathan Redmond in the first half and his efforts kept Liverpool in the game and maybe even the tie. Considering he was playing behind a nervous and unconvincing back four, his performance was even more noteworthy.
The 23-year-old still displayed his rawness, missing a corner completely early in the second half, but that was the one blot on his copybook
3. Southampton face battle to keep outstanding Van Dijk
Virgil van Dijk is no longer the best-kept secret in the Premier League, with the Southampton centre-half now a leading target for Chelsea and Manchester City, but it is difficult to overstate just how important he has become to his current club.
Signed for just £11.5 million from Celtic in August 2015, the 25-year-old is now likely to be sold for perhaps five times as much at the end of the season, with the Saints fighting a losing battle to keep the Dutchman out of the clutches of the Premier League's biggest clubs.
Van Dijk was outstanding against Liverpool, dominating at the back and also displaying his ability to carry the ball out of defence, not only gracefully, but also powerfully.
Jose Fonte's contract dispute, which led to the Portugal centre-half being omitted from the squad for this game by manager Claude Puel, could have destabilised Southampton against a team with Liverpool's attacking threat.
But Van Dijk was a colossus alongside Fonte's replacement Maya Yoshida and gave a true captain's performance for the home team.
Southampton have a track record for selling at least one top player each summer, though, and Van Dijk will be at the front of the queue this time.
Mark Ogden is a senior football writer for ESPN FC. Follow him @MarkOgden_