Liverpool moved to within two points of second-placed Manchester United after goals from Roberto Firmino and Mohamed Salah secured a comfortable victory over struggling Southampton.
Brazil forward Firmino gave Liverpool an early lead with his 20th goal of the season when he finished off a Liverpool counter-attack after being teed up by Salah.
Southampton then twice brought saves out of Reds goalkeeper Loris Karius, before Liverpool added a second through Salah after he exchanged passes with Firmino.
It was the Egypt international’s 29th goal of the season for the club from 36 appearances in all competitions.
Liverpool looked the more likely to score again after half-time as they controlled possession, and only some last-ditch defending prevented a greater margin of victory.
The win ensured Liverpool took advantage of United’s 1-0 defeat by Rafael Benitez’s Newcastle side earlier on Sunday and leapfrogged Tottenham back into third place.
Southampton drop into the relegation zone, a point behind Huddersfield who beat Bournemouth 4-1, with further scrutiny of the position of manager Mauricio Pellegrino likely.
Van Dijk keeps his cool
Liverpool defender Virgil van Dijk was expected to get a hostile reaction from the Southampton fans on his first return to St Mary’s since his move to Anfield and there were plenty of boos for the Dutchman.
Indeed, Reds manager Jurgen Klopp revealed in the build-up to the match he would speak to Van Dijk about the need to maintain his composure in light of the ill-feeling towards him.
The 26-year-old, whose protracted move to the Reds for £75m from Southampton was eventually completed in January after the transfer saga of last summer, more than kept his cool at the heart of Liverpool’s defence.
His performance was one with which the Southampton fans would have been familiar – towering headers, key interceptions and brave blocks while marshalling the backline.
It was this kind faultless defensive display Liverpool fans had yearned for before his arrival, and the kind Southampton now so desperately miss.
Southampton need more from Carrillo
Southampton’s victory over West Brom in their previous match ended a run of 12 league matches without a win but this defeat will have damaged their confidence.
A sluggish start and defensive mistakes – with Wesley Hoedt the most culpable – allowed Liverpool to take the lead with a quicksilver counter-attack finished off by Firmino.
There was little the hosts could do about Liverpool’s second as Firmino’s brilliant backheel set up Salah.
But the worry for Saints fans will be how toothless they were in attack at home, and particularly the lack of threat posed by Guido Carrillo.
Pellegrino made striker Carrillo their club record £19m signing from Monaco in January, but the Argentine has yet to find the net.
Southampton need Carrillo to show more from here until the end of the season if they are to avoid the drop.
Karius builds case to start in Porto
Liverpool manager Klopp has rotated goalkeepers Karius and Simon Mignolet according to competition this season.
Whichever man has not been first choice in the Premier League has instead started in the Champions League.
Klopp stated last month that Karius would be his first choice for league matches, but under his policy to date Mignolet would return in goal for the first leg of their Champions League last-16 tie away to Porto.
However, the impressive display by Karius at St Mary’s will surely prompt Klopp to rethink his approach, particularly as the European competition represents Liverpool’s last hope of a trophy this season.
With Liverpool 1-0 up against the Saints the German made two fine saves – narrowing the angle to block a Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg shot and tipping a James Ward-Prowse header over the crossbar – while his quick distribution played a part in Firmino’s opening goal.
Will Klopp now risk bringing back Mignolet for such an pivotal game on Wednesday? If he does bank on Karius in Portugal, it could well signal the end of Mignolet’s Anfield career given the Belgian’s desire to play regularly.
Man of the match – Roberto Firmino (Liverpool)
Salah puts left foot first – the best stats
- Jurgen Klopp has won 50 of his 95 Premier League games in charge (D28 L17) – the ninth fastest manager to reach 50 wins.
- Southampton have won just once in their past 14 Premier League games (D7 L6), and kept only one clean sheet in the process.
- Liverpool have already scored more Premier League away goals in this campaign (34) than they managed in the entirety of 2016-17 (33).
- Mohamed Salah has been directly involved in 29 Premier League goals this season (22 goals, 7 assists), the most by a Liverpool player in their debut season.
- Salah has scored 19 left-footed goals in the Premier League this term – the joint-most by a player in a single season, alongside Robbie Fowler for Liverpool in 1994-95.
- Only twice in the past 16 seasons have Liverpool seen two players score 20 times in a campaign in all competitions. Salah has 28 and Roberto Firmino 20.
Liverpool travel to Porto for the first leg of the Champions League last-16 tie at the Estadio do Dragao on Wednesday (19:45 GMT). Southampton are in FA Cup action on Saturday (15:00 GMT) when they face West Brom in a fifth-round tie at The Hawthorns.