Milner’s command performance keeps Liverpool in fight for title

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<span>Photograph: Ian Walton/Reuters</span>
Photograph: Ian Walton/Reuters

General-in-reserve never looked like a man losing a football match – as the club continue chase for the quadruple


Well, it was always going that way wasn’t it? At St Mary’s, Jürgen Klopp picked a fever dream of a Liverpool first XI for the penultimate game of the Premier League season, then saw his team fall behind after 13 minutes needing to win to take this pursuit of the sun, the chase for the quadruple, to the final day. And still, somehow, it never really seemed in doubt.

This Liverpool team has too much energy to stop now. And while it seems only right to point out the pursuit of the league title is still heavily asterisked, that it isn’t in Liverpool’s hands, Manchester City will be all too aware of the pressure at their backs.

Related: Liverpool take title race to final day after Joël Matip header sees off Southampton

There has been a weird kind of voodoo about the current run. City have barely stuttered. They’ve also kept on winning, burying the pain of Madrid, playing like champions. Players have begun to break and fall away. The games have become frantic. But that gleaming set of teeth is still there in the rear-view mirror.

Here it was Liverpool’s deep reserves that kept them moving forward, driven on by a command performance from James Milner, who played half a game in the middle and half a game on the right, touched the ball more than anyone else on the pitch, and spent the 90 minutes cajoling his teammates over the line like a long-suffering dad on a cross-country hike.

St Mary’s is one of the more hospitable away grounds at the best of times. Before kickoff a marching band tootled away through the rain outside the stadium. No flares were thrown. No baying crowd greeted the team buses. Inside the atmosphere brought to mind a fond early summer village fete.

Whereas for Liverpool this was jeopardy, destiny, the edge of things. And for all the changes (nine of them) it was pretty clear with 30 seconds gone how this Liverpool team would play: like a Liverpool team. The yellow shirts came out swarming around the centre circle, stealing the ball. The high press was fierce. The shapes were the same. Kostas Tsimikas stood thrillingly high on the left flank.

To their credit, Southampton provided resistance, and even took the lead with a fine deflected finish from Nathan Redmond. At which point Milner began to hitch up his sleeves, providing a supreme driving presence in that opening half-hour.

Milner has a timeless look to him these days. He doesn’t really run. He stalks. He doesn’t caress the ball, or thread it, or glide it. He clumps it. He kicks it like a man dishing out a fond, correctional repunishment, the kind of licks the ball will thank him for when it’s old enough. And through all this he looks oddly indestructible, an athlete made from some untiring super-substance – ancient Roman leather, whalebone and buffalo hide.

Here he played in front of the defence, occupied the centre ground, passed the ball forward, a player who has gone from part-time false nine in his Manchester City days to the footballing equivalent of the muddy pair of wellies Klopp keeps in the boot of his car for moments like these. In the first half alone he completed 97% of his 54 passes, had two shots at goal and made four interceptions. He never at any stage looked like a man losing a football match.

And with 26 minutes gone there was a flex of the shoulders from Liverpool. Joe Gomez crossed the ball from the right to Diogo Jota’s feet. He produced a wonderful touch, killing the ball, but also diverting it on into the run of Taki Minamino, a courteous, dutiful little pass. Minamino took two perfect touches, before spanking the ball into the top corner. It was an excellent goal-at-1-0-down goal, a goal that said we will just keep playing this way.

Related: Southampton 1-2 Liverpool: Premier League – as it happened

Jordan Henderson came on at half-time and Milner moved to right-back. With 58 minutes gone he was up there jinking and feinting on the wing, dummying Redmond like a teenager. Milner is out of contract in June. The club have offered him another 12 months. Surely he’s going to take it. Where else is he going to go? This is the kind of leader-by-default every organisation craves, asking nothing, screwing the joints into place, the wookie in the engine room, bolting this thing together on the hoof, banging the circuit boards.

It was from that right side that Liverpool’s second goal came. Milner’s cross, one of 10 in that half alone, was a horrible swirling, veering thing that skimmed away for a corner. The kick from the left cannoned off a couple of heads and ended up looping into the goal off Joël Matip, who kind of knew what he was doing. And that was pretty much that.

Liverpool have played 61 games since August. They have two games left to play, the two biggest trophies in club football still just about on the line. Wolves at home on Sunday will see the return of the first XI. Here they were led by their general in reserve – his last act was to go down with some well-earned cramp as the clock ticked past 90 minutes.

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