Swashbuckling Liverpool end year how they started in Swansea rout

Adam Lallana has had the most positive impact of Brendan Rodgers' summer signings

Adam Lallana, who scored twice against Swansea on Monday night, has had the most positive impact of Brendan Rodgers’ summer signings

Adam Lallana scored twice as Liverpool ended a year that promised so much with a resounding victory over Swansea at Anfield.

Alberto Moreno’s first home goal separated the sides at the break, before Lallana took centre stage, scoring twice either side of Gylfi Sigurdsson briefly giving the visitors hope.

A stylish performance from Brendan Rodgers’ side, who have risen to eighth in the Premier League, was capped by an own goal from Jonjo Shelvey on his return to Merseyside.

Liverpool, 11 points worse off than at the corresponding stage last season, were quick to regain possession in the early skirmishes, with the deep lying Emre Can snapping into challenges, and setting the same tempo which took them to within a game of the title this year.

Jordan Henderson’s first corner found Martin Skrtel, but after he had risen above Federico Fernandez, the Slovakian could only plant his header straight at Lukasz Fabianski.

The hosts will look back on the past 12 months with a sense of regression, but they slowly began to assert themselves on this fixture, and after Raheem Sterling’s volley from Moreno’s cross was beaten away by Fabianski, Lallana skied the rebound when well-set.

Liverpool, who beat Swansea in a Capital One Cup tie back in October courtesy of two goals in the last five minutes, were rarely threatened by their Welsh counterparts in the opening half hour.

Gary Monk’s side arrived on Merseyside having secured back-to-back victories for the first time since August, but they were forced into a glut of misplaced passes by their fired-up opponents, restricting opportunities to test the beleaguered Simon Mignolet.

Rodgers’ team deserved the lead and it was through a summer signing that they duly went in front in the 33rd minute.

Moreno, playing on the left of a four-man midfield, began and finished the move involving Lallana, half-volleying Henderson’s early low cross into the net via the legs of Fabianski.

Alberto Moreno settled the home side's nerves with a well taken opener after 33 minutes

Alberto Moreno settled the home side’s nerves with a well-taken opener after 33 minutes

Jonjo Shelvey was fortunate not to avoid a red card on his return to Anfield after his elbow landed with Emre Can's chin

Lucky escape: Jonjo Shelvey was fortunate to avoid seeing red on his return to Anfield after his elbow landed with Emre Can’s chin

Shelvey, keen to build on his record of scoring on both his appearances against his old club last season, had been warned by Monk about his discipline last week, but the 22-year-old may face retrospective action after Andre Marriner failed to see his swinging elbow land shortly before half-time.

Philippe Coutinho, the vibrant star performer of the opening 45 minutes, fizzed a swerving shot that stung the hands of Fabianski, but Liverpool went into the interval with only a slender advantage.

Goalkeeping howlers have become a feature of Liverpool’s matches this season, but five minutes into the second period, they were the beneficiaries of such an individual error.

Receiving Ashley Williams’ back pass after 51 minutes, Fabianski tried to be too precise with his clearance, which ricocheted off the advancing Lallana and looped underneath the crossbar much to the midfielder’s delight.

The misfortune sparked Swansea into life, and within a minute, they were back to within a goal of restoring parity. Wayne Routledge’s deep cross towards Wilfired Bony forced Mamadou Sakho to direct his header only into the path of Sigurdsson who couldn’t miss from close range.

A cagey and studious first-half was by now a distant memory, as Bony nearly equalized from the re-start, only for Sterling to rattle the post following another exquisite cross from Henderson.

But the home side were not to be kept at bay for long. Lallana ran onto Coutinho’s delightful backheel to round two Swansea defenders before drilling his left-foot shot beyond Fabianski to restore Liverpool’s two-goal cushion on the hour-mark.

By now, the Reds were rampant, and intent on improving their goal difference that would simultaneously take them above their opponents in the league. Their fourth would again arrive through slightly fortuitous circumstances with 20 minutes remaining, and Lallana again played a crucial role.

Shelvey was more concerned with getting into conversation with the former Southampton man than marking him effectively at a corner, and he barely got off the ground, inadvertently heading Henderson’s near-post centre over Fabianksi and in off the far post.

After Lallana was given a standing ovation as he departed the stage with 15 minutes remaining, Sterling was withdrawn for more precautionary reasons.

The makeshift striker was having one of his quieter evenings before he clashed with Fernandez after the ball had gone out of play, flailing a hand into the face of the Argentina defender. A less lenient referee may have interpreted the incident more dimly.

Substitute Bafetimbi Gomis nearly brought a degree of respectability back to the scoreline for Swansea, his right-foot shot from the edge of the box bouncing back off the crossbar.

There was still time for Mario Balotelli to be denied a first Liverpool league goal by Fabianksi, either side of Routledge and another Gomis shot both being steered off target, but this was a positive step in rebuilding the crumbled walls of Fortress Anfield.

Liverpool will enter 2015 having lost only one of their last ten games in all competitions. It’s a platform to build on for Rodgers, whose 3-4-3 system has rebooted his side’s quest to replicate last season’s feat of securing Champions League qualification.

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Chelsea win Battle of Britannia to be crowned Christmas Number One

Stoke got to grips with Eden Hazard, but they were unable to prevent the Belgian from assisting Chelsea's second goal

Stoke got to grips with Eden Hazard, but they were unable to prevent the Belgian from assisting Chelsea’s second goal

There is only one thing more predictable than the X-Factor winner being Top of the Pops when the yuletide presents are unwrapped and that is the destination of the Premier League trophy if Chelsea are in pole position come the 25th day of December.

The West Londoners have won the title in each of the three previous occasions they have been Christmas No1 and Jose Mourinho’s immaculate record of seven league titles across the continent having been top of the tree adds further ammunition to the argument that the end of season honours will be handed out at Stamford Bridge.

Manchester City have mustered six consecutive wins to restore credibility in the reigning champions, but goals from John Terry and the indefatigable Cesc Fabregas ensured that Chelsea withstood a late rally from those clad in sky blue to be crowned popular winners of the fabled festive bragging rights.

“We want to play our game, we have our own identity that we want to keep,” Mourinho began, in his pre-match duties to Sky. “But if you are not able to adapt to the opponent when they have the ball, you are in trouble, so we’ve prepared ourselves during the week to try to cope with their style of play.”

The Portuguese echoed the sentiments of Gary Neville in the Monday Night Football studio, who was left disgruntled by the paucity of defensive mettle on show at Anfield 24 hours earlier, when two sides demonstrated how far the art of defending one’s penalty area has been neglected in recent times.

The league leaders didn’t need anywhere near the 27 attempts on Arsenal’s goal by Liverpool to amass the two strikes necessary for the type of scrappy victory that has become the hallmark of Mourinho’s championship-winning sides.

The Chelsea manager approached the game wary that the bigger the team, the better Stoke have played this season. Their diminutive forward Bojan had already exploited the softness of Spurs and Arsenal with his gliding runs, and so it was of little surprise that John Obi Mikel retained his position in the side having featured in each of the last five fixtures, including the 3-1 victory at Derby County last week.

Jose Mourinho has never lost in the three games after Christmas at Chelsea - winning nine times and drawing three.

Formidable Festive record: Jose Mourinho has never lost in the three games after Christmas at Chelsea – winning nine times and drawing three.

Indeed, it has been Mourinho’s way this season not to tinker profoundly from one week to the next, preferring to allow his players a degree of consistency. Mikel’s inclusion in the Capital One Cup quarter-final served as a precursor to the screening job he would be asked to fulfill at the Britannia alongside Nemanja Matic.

Combatting the aerial threat of the hosts with the Nigerian’s height would also have been in Mourinho’s thoughts, but it was through this means that Stoke were not for the first time this season ‘Stoked’.

Willian, Eden Hazard and Diego Costa were all left on the deck inside the opening quarter of an hour by typically hefty challenges but the only wrestling match which mattered resulted in the Chelsea breakthrough after two minutes.

Terry, on his 650th Blues appearance, outmuscled Geoff Cameron to meet Fabregas’ corner and head his side in front, helping to settle any nerves of the unlikely event that City would overtake them courtesy of another Stoke scalp. I’m not sure the Wealdstone Raider would’ve approved given the poor crowds on Champions League nights at the Etihad in the autumn.

Stoke certainly had their most vociferous fans in attendance on Monday night, and they were upstanding following a robust challenge by Phil Bardsley on Hazard after the ball had already gone out of play.

The usually impartial Neville uncharacteristically donned his full-backs’ union cap, lending sympathy to Bardsley for what he described as a challenge worthy of an ‘orange card’, but several players, including Gabriel Agbonlahor, have been sent off for far less this season.

While the former Sunderland defender was fortunate to avoid more severe retribution, it did serve its purpose as the home side were subsequently encouraged to enjoy their best spell in the game.

Both Steven Nzonzi and Jonathan Walters had goal-bound shots deflected, before even the legs of referee Neil Swarbrick snuffed out a swift Chelsea counter-attack, much to the chagrin of Mourinho.

Costa failed to capitalize on Ryan Shawcross’ ill-judged decision to appeal for offside by dragging his shot wide, denying Fabregas his 13th assist of the campaign. It enabled Stoke to remain within touching distance until the Spaniard himself put the game to bed with little over ten minutes remaining.

Both of Cesc Fabregas' goals in the Premier League this season have come away from Stamford Bridge.

Both of Cesc Fabregas’ goals in the Premier League this season have come away from Stamford Bridge.

Mourinho hailed his side’s spirit and mentality in returning to London with what he described as ‘more than three points’. Having failed the Britannia test last year, the Special One identified where he needed to strengthen, and went out and bought it in the summer.

The knocks and bruises felt on the team coach this time around would have been worn like badges of honour, the scars of victory on a winter’s night in the Potteries the DNA of champions. It has left them battle-hardened for the difficult trips to Southampton and Tottenham after the Boxing Day visit of West Ham to the Bridge.

Defeats at Everton, Crystal Palace and Stoke proved decisive in derailing Chelsea’s title quest last campaign, but the Blues have now won at each of those awkward venues this time, and it is their growing maturity to navigate a way to victory at these grounds that has placed them as favourites for the title.

Seven of the last 10 teams to be top on Christmas Day have progressed to be anointed Premier League champions the following May. City will continue to apply the squeeze, but few would bet against Chelsea making it eight out of 11 following their latest show of strength.

Holidays come early for Hackney Bulls as O’Driscoll comes to town

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Hackney teenagers were given an early Christmas present this week, as Brian O’Driscoll played Santa by bringing the Rugby World Cup to the borough.

The former British and Irish Lions captain was in East London to help launch mid-week coaching sessions at the Petchey Academy – and the Webb Ellis Trophy arrived in his sleigh.

With the World Cup coming to England next year, the trophy has begun its grand tour of the British Isles, and the home of Hackney Bulls and Belles was its destination on Tuesday.

Members of both the men and women’s teams were able to have their photo taken with the iconic piece of silverware, and O’Driscoll, the Coca-Cola Company’s Rugby World Cup 2015 ambassador, was delighted to be part of the inaugural mid-week coaching session.

“East London is not an area of the country that is synonymous with rugby,” said O’Driscoll, the world’s most capped player. “This as an opportunity to bring the game to a wider audience.

“As a former professional sportsman, I’m a passionate believer in the importance of leading an active, healthy lifestyle and understanding the benefits of physical activity.”

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The Coca-Cola truck has been synonymous with bringing Christmas sparkle to our television screens for many years, but now it hopes to raise the level of rugby participants in non-traditional areas before next year’s showpiece event.

Ireland’s record try-scorer O’Driscoll lauded the work of the Hackney Bulls in coordinating regular open training sessions as a way of encouraging more people within the community to reap the benefits of rugby and physical exercise.

The former Irish outside centre teamed up with compatriot Kerrie Ann Craddock, and fellow female rugby union players Sonia Green and Abi Chamberlain, to sprinkle their wisdom upon the Bulls and Belles academy members, ranging from ages 12 to 17, in a 90-minute session on Petchey’s 3G pitch.

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Rodgers only has himself to blame as Anfield storm shows no signs of a golden sky

Lonely figure: Brendan Rodgers believes clinical finishing was the difference in Sunday's 3-0 defeat at Old Trafford.

Lonely figure: Rodgers believes clinical finishing was the difference in Sunday’s 3-0 defeat

Brendan Rodgers lamented his side’s misfortune in encountering a goalkeeper at the peak of his powers during yesterday’s chastening defeat to rivals Manchester United – but creating enough chances to win will have come as little consolation to the Liverpool boss.

Evolution as a football manager can be slow, and regression unforgiving. How distant must the 3-0 reverse scoreline in the midst of a nine-match winning streak nine months ago now feel for the Northern Irishman.

Rodgers was rightly celebrated by his peers for his achievements last season, voted their Manager of the Year, but barely 25 games have passed in all competitions since, and he now finds himself under increasing pressure from his own supporters.

Unceremoniously dumped out of the Europe’s elite competition last week by Swiss champions Basel, Rodgers departed back down the East Lancs Road yesterday evening – his side ninth and 18 points adrift of league leaders Chelsea – having reached something approaching his nadir in the Anfield hot-seat.

Admittedly, David de Gea’s brilliance in the 3-0 victory at Old Trafford spoke volumes of a distorted result which concealed the 22 touches Liverpool managed inside United’s own penalty area and the nine shots fired on target – many from point-blank range.

Rodgers spoke of the need to “recapture the team ethos” from the wreckage of another damaging loss, but rediscovering a killer instinct in front of goal would account for much of the derision being poured on the five-time European champions.

Mario Balotelli – whose search for a Premier League goal for his new club shall continue into an 11th game – has continued to attract criticism despite a busy substitute appearance in which the Italian had three efforts snuffed out by the unconquerable de Gea, and there is little evidence of a regular goal source emerging from the club’s other auxiliary strikers.

Raheem Sterling – his future still in doubt – will endure a few sleepless nights ahead of Arsenal’s trip to Merseyside next Sunday having lost his own duel with de Gea, while Rickie Lambert will still be smarting from being withdrawn at half-time against Basel. Fabio Borini plainly has no future at the club.

While replacing Luis Suarez through a swollen transfer kitty was instantly compared to the travails of Tottenham following Gareth Bale’s sale to Real Madrid, few would have predicted the acute state of flux that has left Liverpool – last year’s runaway runners-up – brutally exposed as a mid-table side, back to where they were 18 months ago.

The inquest that began upon confirmation of the club’s Champions League exit on Tuesday will have continued in the early hours of this morning, the day after a seventh league defeat – one more than in the whole of last campaign.

The absent Daniel Sturridge has seen his stock rise with every passing setback, but viewing the striker as the returning knight in shining armour clearly smacks of desperation. Without exception, Rodgers’ men have performed below the standards set last year.

While the Reds have scored 20 fewer goals after 16 games than at this stage last season, they have been every bit as suspect defensively this term as they have been profligate in front of goal.

Heading stateside?: Steven Gerrard was linked with a move to New York Red Bulls in Sunday morning's papers

Heading stateside?: Gerrard was linked with a move to New York Red Bulls in Sunday’s papers

The growing assurance of de Gea in filling the gloves vacated by Edwin van der Sar and worn previously by Peter Schmeichel at United is in stark contrast to the shredded spirit seeping out the palms of the deposed Simon Mignolet.

Bruce Grobbelaar denounced Mignolet as ‘worse than Dracula’ last month, placing the blame firmly in the fallible hands of the former Sunderland keeper for Liverpool’s loss of identity.

But as Brad Jones’ subsequent attempt to make the No1 jersey his own testified, the decision to break Mignolet’s league-high sequence of 93 consecutive outings spanning his time on Merseyside and Wearside was not the solution to a disease which penetrates the corridors of Melwood and has now resulted in two wins from ten matches in all competitions.

Granted, Jones seized a rare opportunity in April 2012, taking advantage of a temporary keeper crisis at Liverpool to excel most notably in an FA Cup semi-final appearance against Everton. The Australian was manager Kenny Dalglish’s third choice stopper, whom he called upon as a result of suspensions to Jose Reina and Alexander Doni.

Wembley was the venue then for Jones’ first start since December 2010, but as Gary Neville forewarned, Old Trafford has a history of swallowing up goalkeepers – and this was Jones’ ‘Theatre of Nightmares’. In truth, the 32-year-old journeyman wasn’t good enough for Middleborough ten years ago, while Mignolet arrived at Anfield in the summer of 2013 for £9million to the surprise of many who had followed his progress at the Stadium of Light.

Pinpointing the root cause of such an illness will have left the club’s psychiatrist Steve Peters working overtime, and taking the error-prone Mignolet out of the firing line only scratches at the surface of a scab that is struggling to heal.

It all means that Liverpool have made their worst every start in half a century. Indeed, the Reds are on course to register 50 points this campaign, 34 points fewer than last term. It would be the biggest negative swing for any side in the top flight since the introduction of three points for a win in 1981-82.

Rodgers has now been installed as the second favourite behind Leicester’s Nigel Pearson to become the first Premier League manager to be sacked this season. His decision not to bring ready-made enhancements to the club in the summer, courtesy of a much-maligned transfer committee, would not have been tolerated at Manchester City or Chelsea.

The Fenway Sports Group sacked Roy Hodgson for less four years ago, but the club’s owners appear willing to grant Rodgers credit for overachieving last season, at a time when their £110m investment in a enlarged Main Stand demands Champions League football.

In the short-term, Rodgers needs to find his best eleven for the right opponents. Liverpool fans were apoplectic at the manager’s decision to drop Steven Gerrard for a recent match against Real Madrid, and his flawed selection policy has improved very little since.

Attacking players Philippe Coutinho, Adam Lallana and Lazar Markovic all started on the bench in that must-win game in Europe, when a midfield of Lucas Leiva, Jordan Henderson, Joe Allen and Gerrard would have been far more suited to a difficult fixture away to United.

Another perplexity was the withdrawal of Leiva and Kolo Toure from the side on Sunday, despite the pair helping to recoup seven points from in the previous three games. Allen is too lightweight in midfield, and the Welshman’s defensive deficiencies were brutally exposed by Antonio Valencia on the first of United’s three goals.

Rodgers is not immune from the axe. He parted company with Reading by mutual consent in 2009, and the 41-year-old can’t afford to rest players in Wednesday night’s Capital One Cup quarter-final against Bournemouth.

The Cherries are blazing a trail at the top of the Championship under manager Eddie Howe and, having lost to Liverpool in a Fourth Round FA Cup tie in January, they will sense a far more claimable scalp when wounded reputations take to the field at the Goldsands Stadium.

With the Sky cameras beaming down on him on the south coast, Rodgers could be swept out to sea. Now is the time for the man who climbed Mount Kilimanjaro through illness to again call upon his steely determination to grind out a few results and walk on through the storm.

United have rediscovered the art of winning ugly

Still RVP: van Persie silenced his critics with two world-class finishes at St Mary's on Monday night

Still RVP: van Persie silenced his critics with two world-class finishes at St Mary’s on Monday night

“They’re back to the old, lucky United,” said Sky’s Jamie Carragher. He was half right.

Manchester United’s 2-1 win at Southampton – a fifth victory in succession that has taken Louis van Gaal’s side up to third in the Premier League – did have an air of the Sir Alex Ferguson era about it.

The visitors’ three shots on goal in the entire match was a season low by any side in the Premier League– and United’s lowest since August 2003.

True, their first-half display was every bit as bad as the one produced at the Emirates recently. But United then against Arsenal, as on Monday, found a path to victory.

On another night, Shane Long may well have guided his two presentable openings into the net, but to say that United were lucky is to disregard the best part of two decades worth of league and cup honours for the Red Devils.

To pay lip service to van Gaal’s bold decision to make a second substitution to his side with over half the game remaining is a nod to the type of kamikaze defending Arsene Wenger seemed apathetic towards against Stoke at the weekend.

In replacing the sorry Paddy McNair after 39 minutes, van Gaal was on message: ‘Our defence is in disarray. Sort it out.’ And for all the percentage statistics being weighed heavily in Southampton’s favour, United were a far more resolute defensive unit thereafter.

It does help of course when you’re spear-headed by a man who just loves playing against the Saints. Robin van Persie’s seven goals in as many appearances against them is testament to the amount he loves a trip to the south coast.

The Dutchman came away with the match ball following a hat-trick two seasons ago, and despite the scanty six touches United managed in Southampton’s penalty area during the entire 90 minutes on Monday night, his two were all that was required to clinch victory.

The first, on the one hand a gift, showed glimpses that van Persie has rediscovered his predatory instincts, pouncing on Jose Fonte’s sleepy backpass. Flat-footed and cumbersome as he appeared in the season’s early rounds, here he bristled with an awareness and deftness of touch that was lacking in his teammates for huge swathes of the match.

There was no question of Fraser Forster’s indecision in not rushing to snuff out the opener which came against the run of play, but accusations that the Southampton stopper – heroic as he was against Arsenal last week – has lost a degree of authority since his mistake at Aston Villa can be levelled at him based on United’s second.

Some, like Carragher perhaps, might argue that van Persie’s flick squirmed ‘luckily’ through the legs of Forster. But the England goalkeeper should have claimed the ball from inside his own six-yard box. As it was, it had all the hallmarks of a classic United winner, minus the need for Fergie time. It even reads ‘Rooney cross, van Persie left-foot volley, goal’. For how long and how frequent have we seen the former Arsenal striker tracking a high ball and connecting sweetly, all the while appearing to have ghosted in unmarked.

There was nothing lucky about this. Naïve, most certainly. Ronald Koeman elected to make a substitution as the visitors lined up a free-kick in a dangerous position, clearly believing that replacing Dusan Tadic with 18-year-old debutant Jake Hesketh would in no way affect the concentration of his players.

Sensing the danger: van Gaal's change of tactics helped United secure their fifth successive win

Sensing the danger: van Gaal’s change of tactics helped United secure their fifth successive win

Whereas certain clubs might gladly cherish tasting five consecutive wins for the first time in two years in all its glory, it would be wildly optimistic of United’s Champions League competitors to think that van Gaal is entirely happy with the level of performance during that winning sequence.

Marouane Fellaini was fortunate not to be given the hook following a hugely disappointing opening 45 minutes. His wayward pass led to Graziano Pelle’s equalizer, but they were all guilty of conceding possession in dangerous areas.

It is not to say that going into the festive programme on the back of 15 points out of 15 is papering over the cracks, and one suspects that a squad that was struck by its 42nd injury of the season when Chris Smalling departed holding his groin will be stretched to the limit by a relentless Christmas fixture list.

But with Ashley Young again showing his willingness to buy into the van Gaal way by operating with conviction not for the first time as a makeshift left-back, van Persie seemingly happy once more and the promise of more spending to come in January, there is gathering belief at Old Trafford that the worst of United’s troubles this season are firmly behind them.

Flying Saints have their wings clipped…but will it prove a blip?

Stretched to the limit:  Koeman has seen his depleted side pick up one point out of nine

Stretched to the limit: Koeman has seen his depleted side pick up one point out of nine

Southampton have defied critics as the season’s surprise package until now but following back-to-back defeats, it is tempting to argue that the heightened expectation and on the south coast is starting to weigh heavily on Ronald Koeman’s side.

Still riding high in third, despite losses to Manchester City and Arsenal in recent days, the congested Christmas calendar will now surely test the Saints’ resolve. Koeman lamented the need to withdraw Toby Alderweireld through injury with the game drifting towards a stalemate in North London.

“Eleven against 11 against Arsenal is difficult. But 11 against 10 is more difficult,” said the Dutchman, rueful of having already made three substitutes. “A lot of players have hamstring problems because that’s about the number of games that they have to play.

“Southampton, or even other teams, we don’t have the number of players that Arsenal have. If you see what they have, we don’t have it. And that’s the problem for the little bit lower teams with this schedule of games in December.”

Two of Wednesday night’s replacements had been enforced, with the departures of Jack Cork and Dusan Tadic disrupting the visitors’ rhythm before the game entered its critical stage at the Emirates. The sight of Alderweireld limping off proved an invitation the irrepressible Alexis Sanchez seldom needs.

Two defeats against two of the traditional top four sides does not denote the wheels coming off, but having also experienced shortcomings at Tottenham and Liverpool, the argument that Southampton will fall short of breaking into the top four has never looked so convincing.

Finishing in a Champions League berth would replicate the feat of Everton in 2005, when another mitigating circumstance opened the door to an unfancied underdog. Big sides in bad moments of their cycles resembles Liverpool’s Istanbul destiny of 2015.

While Saints fans will keep the faith, unlike many of the dissenting voices draped in red and white scarves across the divide who left long before Sanchez pounced on Wednesday, the last four days have seen the power shift back towards the so-called elite.

In that time, only Everton of last season’s top seven have failed to pick up at least a victory, with Manchester United, City, Liverpool and Arsenal claiming maximum points. Southampton, through to the Capital One Cup quarter-finals, now face the daunting prospect of eight matches in 25 days (a game every three days) leading into the New Year.

A consistent line-up has formed the blueprint to Chelsea’s imperious form this campaign, winning games inside an hour before applying the handbrake. But the rigours of a season that has transformed Southampton into a scalp is now beginning to show.

Former head of recruitment Paul Mitchell worked so impressively in masterminding a solution to the summer exodus that it in turn earned him a reunion with Mauricio Pochettino at Tottenham. But, with the Saints now being forced to make changes, it is perhaps the less documented departures that will now test the cards Koeman has been dealt.

Itching for a move: Morgan Schneiderlin said before his recent injury he would seek a move should the Saints fail to finish in the top four

Itching for a move: Morgan Schneiderlin said before his recent injury he would seek a move should the Saints fail to finish in the top four

Both Gaston Ramirez and Dani Osvaldo were allowed to seek regular first-team football through loan deals as the transfer window drew to a close last September, and the depth of a small squad may now be expsoed by those fringe players left behind.

The recent spate of injuries is all the more ill-timed given striker Graziano Pelle’s apparent loss of form. Without a goal in six games, the speculation linking Burnley’s Danny Ings to the club, coupled with the imminent return of Jay Rodriguez, should spur the Italian to rediscover his mojo in front of goal.

A fortnight ago, the visit of United to fortress St Mary’s would have represented another opportunity to demonstrate the long road ahead for Luis van Gaal at Old Trafford. But buoyed by four successive league victories for the first time in a year, it is they who arguably enter Monday night’s fixture at the right time.

The seasoned Premier League followers among us nodded knowingly, erring on the side of caution when discussing Southampton’s autumn march up the league table. A Gael and a Chilean have brought winter’s bite, tempering their progress. How the Saints respond during this overdue run of difficult fixtures will go a long way to defining their season.

We all need to smarten up about Gerrard’s actual worth

Stats can be misleading: Gerrard (13) has scored more Premier League goals in 2014 than any other English player

Stats can be misleading: Gerrard (13) has scored more Premier League goals in 2014 than any other English player Source: Opta

It’s not often I am moved to write about the captain of Liverpool Football Club. But a lot of nonsense has now been vented surrounding Steven Gerrard since his cataclysmic slip against Chelsea gifted Manchester City the title last April.

From the howls of derision from away supporters to the fluctuating performances which triggered even the converted to question his place in the team, the raging debate over Gerrard’s worth has been given the fine toothcomb treatment by almost everyone with an affinity or enmity to this land’s former skipper.

Having compounded that fatal error for club with that wayward header for country, he admitted himself it was “the worst three months of my life”, but to conclude that his waning influence on matches this season owes entirely to an inability to let go is to neglect the numbers stacked against today’s Sport supplement headliner.

Make no mistake, yesteryear’s Roy of the Rovers can still have a massive impact on the biggest matches at the highest level, so to call him a spent force would be somewhat premature. But in scoring the decisive second goal against Leicester City at the King Power Stadium, Gerrard notched only his third Premier League strike in open play in 21 months.

Admittedly, he’s been deployed deeper, and Gerrard’s enduring influence has never exclusively been predicated on his knack of finding the net. Take away his goals and an abridged version of his career would still place him among the finest midfielders to grace the Premier League. But nor is it a moot point that the sparingly used Frank Lampard has netted five times in the ten matches he’s played since September 21 at Man City.

While those Hollywood balls still invariably reached their targets last night, and the infamous huddle which greeted the seven-point cushion over City eight months ago will go down as one of the year’s most enduring sporting images of a side galvanized by its leader, his match-winner should be treated for what it was worth: a match-winner against the bottom side in the Premier League.

Gerrard earned his luck of course, not stopping to admire his own pass before latching onto a loose ball to plant a slide-rule finish into the net. It was vintage Stevie G. But it was also too obvious as a back-page dream: “Gerrard Roars Back”, proclaimed The Daily Telegraph. “OMG”, so said The Sun. It is on nights like these where footballers can make fools of the finest writers.

Many of whom questioned whether the 34-year-old had been dropped in the fortunate 1-0 victory over Stoke City 16 years on from his Anfield debut as a raw teenager last weekend. But would he have been in the right place at the right time had he not been ‘rested’? Or would he have stored his energy by checking his run 72 hours after playing another pivotal role against Mark Hughes’ side?

A third of the season behind us, I believe it has taken until now for Reds’ manager Brendan Rodgers to realize his shortcomings in mismanaging the midfielder. The focus has swung from life-after-Luis to Daniel Sturridge’s recovery programme to Mario Balotelli’s touches, cloaking Rodgers’ naïve selection process.

It is no surprise that since he smartened up by picking and choosing when to use his influential captain, there has been signs of improvement from last year’s title challengers. A return to form normally starts by winning ugly, and in Liverpool’s case it was by drawing in Ludogorets.

With Champions League qualification now in their own hands, and the prospect of another winnable home fixture against Sunderland at the weekend, confidence is returning to the red half of Merseyside. But it is foolish to claim that Gerrard was taken out of the side as a warning that nobody is indispensable.

 Set-piece specialist: Gerrard’s last goal from open play was against Man City in February 2013 Source: Opta


Set-piece specialist: Gerrard’s last goal from open play was against Man City in February 2013 Source: Opta

BT Sport pundit Steve McManaman eulogized on his mate’s worth, the producers with Liverpool leanings busily readied a compilation of his most telling passes, no matter how elementary to an elite footballer.

And no matter how impressive the broadcasters were again in making an uncanny impression of LFCTV, there was nothing spectacular about his return to the starting line-up.

Far too simplistic is it to say that denying Gerrard a heart-felt reception leading his troops into battle on a milestone occasion has been the catalyst to his own return to form, however much they love an anniversary at Anfield.

Intriguing was it to see the one-club man (his signing of a new deal surely football’s worst-kept secret) line up against a man with a similarly glittering medal cabinet, but with a different perspective on tackling Father Time.

Esteban Cambiasso has been lauded for his performances for the Foxes in the twilight of his career, but at the same age as Gerrard, he too must be handled with care. His head still tells him he can be a box-to-box player, unfortunate not to add to his weekend strike against QPR after his goal-bound shot was blocked by his own teammate Jamie Vardy.

But were he to have not played the 90 minutes of a deranged match at Loftus Road on Saturday, would he have been able to close down Gerrard sooner? Cambiasso has not retreated meekly into the safety net of semi-retirement and the windfall that awaits Lampard when he begrudgingly and belatedly sells his soul to ‘the franchise’. For now, he embraces cold nights in the Midlands with as much relish as a sultry evening at the Bernabeu. It’s the same air that Aston Villa’s Joe Cole admitted to being drawn to in a recent interview.

Cambiasso will undoubtedly cover every blade of grass in trying to drag his side back from the abyss this campaign, while Gerrard poses as the Queen Ant with Sterling, Henderson and Lallana her colony busily foraging for a route back to the top four.

The analogy isn’t so far-fetched. Gerrard is a protected species: already on a yellow card, he broke the offside trap only to collide with Kasper Schmeichel as he tried to round the Danish keeper.

Co-commentator Michael Owen took a long time to effectively do his job, reacting to the incident. Referee Lee Mason, with significantly less, waved away the penalty appeal. But Owen, nor any of the other members of the BT Sport team with Liverpool connections, dared to suggest he had tried to win a penalty by jumping into Schmeichel. If there’s one thing that living in Liverpool has taught them, it’s that Scousers never forget. It’s part of what makes Jamie Carragher’s honest analysis of his former side’s plight so refreshing.

For Gerrard, bigger tests of his longevity await. But as long as he wears the red of his boyhood team, and is protected by those with whom he has forged strong relationships in the media and in the dressing room, he will always be perceived as Captain Marvel.