Southampton reached the EFL Cup final at Wembley with a fully deserved victory over two legs against Liverpool – crowned by Shane Long’s late winner at Anfield.
Claude Puel’s side, defending a 1-0 lead from the first leg, should have put the tie out of Liverpool’s reach inside the first 45 minutes but Dusan Tadic’s close-range shot was blocked by keeper Loris Karius and captain Steve Davis blazed another great chance wildly over.
Liverpool raised the tempo in front of the Kop in the second half but Daniel Sturridge wasted their two best chances.
Fraser Forster acrobatically hooked an Emre Can shot off the line and the hosts also had a late penalty appeal turned down when substitute Divock Origi tumbled under Jack Stephens’ challenge.
But Southampton broke clear in the closing moments and Long finished convincingly from Josh Sims’ pass to send them into the their first final in this competition since 1979, where they will meet either Manchester United or Hull City – a feat achieved without conceding a goal.
Saints superior over two legs
Southampton’s date at Wembley on 26 February is a rich tribute to this brilliantly run club and their understated French manager Claude Puel.
Saints were vastly superior over two legs against Liverpool and, despite the home side’s complaints about that late penalty claim, no-one could seriously begrudge them their victory.
— Southampton FC (@SouthamptonFC) January 25, 2017
And it was all done without their talisman and key defender Virgil van Dijk, out through injury. Southampton were dangerous on the break in the first half and then, when they needed to be, were superbly organised, disciplined and determined defensively before breaking for Republic of Ireland international Long to strike the killer blow.
Southampton have once more demonstrated their ability, as a club, to take the blows of key departures and still achieve.
They lost manager Ronald Koeman to Everton in the summer – as well as important components such as Victor Wanyama and Sadio Mane to Spurs and Liverpool respectively – and have carried on undisturbed with a Wembley appearance as their reward.
Liverpool lose their way – one win in seven matches
Liverpool’s laboured performance was in stark contrast to the all-action attacking displays that briefly took them to the top of the Premier League earlier this season.
Jurgen Klopp’s side looked jaded and have lost their way, with only one win in seven games this year, a third-round FA Cup replay victory at League Two Plymouth Argyle.
Liverpool look shorn of threat without £34m summer signing Sadio Mane, away at the Africa Cup Of Nations with Senegal, and lacking an alternative plan when teams as disciplined as Swansea and Southampton have been in inflicting two successive home defeats.
Sturridge felt the frustration of Liverpool’s supporters for a poor performance and two missed chances, while substitute Origi looks short of confidence.
Klopp’s decision to play Can and Jordan Henderson together in midfield backfired badly and his decision to leave out Georginio Wijnaldum was questionable.
Saints profit from fine margins
Southampton’s players enjoyed every second of their celebrations with their fans in the Anfield Road end as they looked forward to the chance to win their second major trophy, following an FA Cup triumph over Manchester United at Wembley in 1976.
Saints had several anxious moments in the second half, especially when goalkeeper Forster dropped Can’s shot behind him then recovered miraculously to claw it off the line as Sturridge closed in.
They also survived two penalty appeals – for handball against Long and that fall from Origi – but this was a glory night for Southampton and one they fully deserved.