LIVERPOOL, England â€” Liverpool’s season is in danger of unraveling after Juergen Klopp’s team missed out on a place in the English League Cup final following a 1-0 loss to Southampton at Anfield on Wednesday.
Substitute Shane Long scored on the counterattack in injury time to seal a 2-0 aggregate win in the semifinals for Southampton, which reached the final of English football’s second-tier cup competition for a second time.
Manchester United, which leads Hull 2-0 after the first leg of the other semifinal, is the likely opponent at the showpiece at Wembley Stadium next month. For Liverpool, though, the chances of silverware this season are diminishing by the week.
On Saturday, the Reds’ title hopes in the Premier League took a huge hit with a 3-2 loss at home to Swansea, which dropped them to fourth in the standings and 10 points behind first-place Chelsea. A loss to Wolverhampton Wanderers in the FA Cup fourth round on Saturday â€” when Klopp is set to play a weakened team â€” and Liverpool may have to wait another season to win a trophy.
In 2017, Liverpool has won just one of seven games â€” and that was an FA Cup replay at fourth-tier Plymouth.
“If we would doubt the way we are after these little, little problems we have now, it would be a really strange thing,” Klopp said. “We don’t have the points or results that we want, but we know what we want to do. Tonight it didn’t happen, but it was a really good performance.”
Having said that, Klopp accepted that Southampton was the deserved winner.
Leading 1-0 after a dominant display in the first leg two weeks ago, Southampton came to Anfield with problems in central defence following Jose Fonte’s recent departure to West Ham and an injury to star player Virgil van Dijk.
A makeshift partnership of youngster Jack Stephens and Maya Yoshida was thrown together and the pair excelled in bitterly cold conditions, stifling the Premier League’s most prolific attack. The 22-year-old Stephens particularly stood out on only his fourth start for the club, reading the game well and looking assured in possession in the biggest game of his career.
When Liverpool did force openings, Daniel Sturridge twice volleyed over from close range and Philippe Coutinho â€” on the day he signed a new long-term contract â€” miskicked on the volley.
Then, moments after substitute Divock Origi was denied a penalty following an attempted tackle by Stephens, Southampton broke downfield through Josh Sims, who played in Long at the end of a 70-yard run. Long took one touch and buried his shot past Loris Karius from an angle, right in front of the visiting fans.
There was no way back for Liverpool and Southampton could look forward to playing in its first cup final since 2003 â€” when it lost in the FA Cup to Arsenal at Millennium Stadium in Cardiff. The Saints lost the 1979 League Cup final to Nottingham Forest and have only one major trophy to their name, the 1976 FA Cup after beating Manchester United.
“Now we go to Wembley,” Southampton manager Claude Puel said, “not just to participate, but to win this cup.”
Southampton has beaten Premier League opponents â€” Crystal Palace, Sunderland, Arsenal and now Liverpool â€” in every round so far, without conceding a goal.
Progress might be even more satisfying for the south-coast team because it has acted as a virtual feeder club to Liverpool in recent seasons with the likes of Nathaniel Clyne, Adam Lallana, Sadio Mane, Dejan Lovren and Rickie Lambert making the journey from St. Mary’s Stadium to Anfield. Lovren and Lallana started on Wednesday.
Liverpool missed out on the chance to win the League Cup for a record-extending ninth time.
United and Hull meet in their second leg on Thursday.
Steve Douglas is at twitter.com/sdouglas80
Steve Douglas, The Associated Press