The harmony — or lack of it — in Liverpool’s squad will fall under the microscope on Sunday when Brendan Rodgers’s side visit Southampton in a clash ofChampions League qualification hopefuls.
Liverpool’s 1-0 win over Besiktas in the Europa League on Thursday was overshadowed by an incident in the build-up to the hosts’ late winner when substitute Mario Balotelli snatched the ball from stand-in captain Jordan Henderson before scoring the penalty that settled the game.
Regular captain Steven Gerrard, analysing the first-leg match for ITV as he convalesces following a hamstring injury, said Balotelli’s behaviour had been “disrespectful” to Henderson.
But Henderson and Balotelli downplayed the altercation after the game — the former in a television interview; the latter, inevitably, on social media — and Rodgers said he would make sure the matter was put to bed.
“That is my job to manage that. It is what I do behind the scenes every day,” the Liverpool manager told his pre-match press conference.
“You see from the way the team has been playing recently the respect and commitment they show for each other.
“The only thing I would say on it is I don’t like the etiquette. You don’t like to see four or five players around a football looking to take it.
“It was maybe more the etiquette which was not as we would have liked, but we got the end result.”
While the incident caused Liverpool embarrassment, there is no denying that they have returned to something approaching their best following a run of one defeat in 17 matches.
The burst of form has taken Rodgers’s side to within sight of the Premier League’s Champions Leaguequalifying places, where Southampton currently occupy the fourth and final berth.
With Liverpool four points back, victory for the visitors on Sunday would fuel belief for players and supporters alike that a testing season could yet end with a return to Europe’s premier club competition.
– Lallana fears jeers –
Liverpool edged Southampton 2-1 on the season’s opening day and won 3-0 at St Mary’s last season.
Southampton have failed to score in their last two home games — losing 1-0 to Swansea City and drawing 0-0 with West Ham United — but coach Ronald Koeman believes Liverpool’s expansive style will give his side more opportunities.
“Swansea and West Ham didn’t come here to play open football and that gives us more difficulties,” he said.
“We didn’t have the quality to break it down, but Sunday’s game will be different. It is all about sharpness in the box.
“I’m surprised they (Liverpool) have four points less than we have. To come closer, they have to win.”
Former Southampton captain Adam Lallana is set to make his first appearance at St Mary’s since leaving for Anfield last year and he has admitted that he expects a hostile reception.
“I’m not stupid enough to think the way I left didn’t leave a sour taste in a few people’s mouths,” he told BBC Radio Solent this week.
But Koeman refused to be drawn on the England midfielder’s remarks, saying: “I don’t talk about players who come back to the club where they played last season because I could do that every week.”
While Gerrard remains sidelined, Raheem Sterling is in contention to start for Liverpool after returning from a foot injury.
Balotelli, meanwhile, will also hope to start after scoring twice and supplying one assist as a substitute in his last three appearances.
Midfielder Morgan Schneiderlin (adductor muscle) and forward Shane Long (fractured ribs) are both available for Southampton, but Ryan Bertrand, Toby Alderweireld, Jay Rodriguez and Emmanuel Mayuka are all out. – Agence France-Presse