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From Saints to sinners

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All summer the internet was inundated with memes making light of Liverpool’s plundering of Southampton’s treasure. Oh, how we laughed. But the person laughing the most now is Ronald Koeman, having arrived from Dutch soil bearing gems of attacking talent, while Liverpool bemoan their new signings led by the roughest diamond of them all. The man, the myth, the Mario.

Only three points separate Southampton and Liverpool in the league table, and the league table never lies. But the table is selective with the truth; what it does not tell you is that last season was possibly Liverpool’s last shot at title glory for the rest of the decade, and that Southampton are a team on an unprecedented rise. Experts tipped a ravaged Saints side for the drop, a sharp and sudden fall tantamount to Steven Gerrard’s fall to the turf to give the freedom of Anfield to Demba Ba. But Southampton have confounded critics, Koeman’s shrewd signings gelling almost immediately.

The two that have garnered the most media attention, Graziano Pellè and Dušan Tadić, have managed to prove that players plucked from the Eredivisie can perform in a way that Afonso Alves never could. Remember poor old Afonso? He managed to accumulate an outrageous scoring record for Heerenveen, performances for Middlesbrough that never paid back a £12.5 million fee and a bafflingly high eight caps for Brazil. But I digress. The arrivals of the surprisingly old Pellè,  aged 29, and the effervescent Tadić have lit up Premier League pitches as integral components to a team balanced with flair and endeavour. The 8-0 embarrassment of Sunderland at the weekend was highly impressive, although we cannot overlook Sunderland’s impressive degree of ineptitude. Vito Mannone? An ageing Vito Corleone would have been more useful in net, with Mannone’s lacklustre efforts giving Southampton’s players an offer to score goals that they simply could not refuse. Southampton’s unyielding pressure was admirable, with Victor Wanyama’s mercilessly enthusiastic celebrations for bagging the seventh goal an embodiment of the high morale at the club. That this morale has not wavered with significant departures is a testament to the work Koeman has accomplished.

Somewhere, right now, Rickie Lambert is sat on a bench. Reduced to substitute for both club and country, he has not been missed at St Mary’s Stadium in the way many predicted. Nor has Adam Lallana, beginning to sparkle for Liverpool in bursts but perhaps destined to forever do so in Raheem Sterling’s shadow. As for Dejan Lovren, he should live in very real fear that Kolo Toure might usurp his position in the first team. And that is undoubtedly a sign that things are not going too well. It is not just the signings from Southampton that have struggled. Lazar Markovic has flitted around like a butterfly, and stung like a butterfly. It turns out that Emre Can can’t. Then there is the personification of enigma, Mario Balotelli. There will probably never come a time when Mario Balotelli is not the centre of attention, but at the moment he is a ghost of the man who had the impunity to don the ‘Why Always Me?’ t-shirt, or of the beast who demolished the German defence at Euro 2012.

Some will say that Richard Dunne and Steven Caulker stole two definite goals off the Italian in Liverpool’s rollercoaster of a victory against QPR this weekend. Others will say it is a good thing that the QPR centre-backs confidently dispatched them, because Balotelli would not have. But if ifs and buts were candy and nuts, then how is this phrase supposed to end? I can never remember. But the point is that a £16 million striker cannot afford to deal in what-ifs, but must take the game to the opposition instead of skulking around the pitch. With the Italian international one would expect a mixture of candy and nuts, of moments of sublime skill and of moments of madness. At the moment, there exists only an overbearing need to get Daniel Sturridge as fit as possible, as quickly as possible.

The future looks as bright for Southampton. Koeman has effortlessly slid into Mauricio Pochettino’s shoes. There is an exciting core of English talent composed of Forster, Clyne, Bertrand and Cork. And remember Jay Rodriguez? With the versatile frontman soon to return and link up with the conjurer Tadić and the converter Pellè, a sustained stay in the higher echelons of the league does not seem implausible. For Liverpool, lying in fifth place does not hide defensive frailties or striking impotence. Last season’s title charge, propelled by the bite of Luis Suarez in attack, has possibly distorted pre-season ambitions from realistic to fanciful. There is no doubt that they are a different proposition this season; their fear factor has dissipated with Suarez’s departure.

If times get tougher for Liverpool, then I have some heartening news for Brendan Rodgers. Afonso Alves is currently available on a free transfer.