Liverpool and Southampton contending for the wooden medal of fourth

The tussle for the top four positions in the Premier League is starting to get spicy. Well, the race for third and fourth place, anyway, because first and second have been locked up for months. In fact, it may just be the race for fourth, because it’s starting to look very likely that Manchester United will bore its way to third. On Sunday, two of the contenders for the wood medal that is the last Champions League qualifying spot face off, as Southampton (which is still a thing) hosts Liverpool (which is belatedly becoming a thing again).

(Arsenal will more than likely nip in ahead of both of them, but let’s ignore the inevitable, just for this weekend.)

Last summer, Liverpool cleverly tried to undermine a rival by buying all of Southampton’s good players. Southampton, meanwhile, went out and bought players who are currently outperforming their predecessors, and as a result it now sits three places above Liverpool in the table. Dejan Lovren, Rickie Lambert, and Adam Lallana have all managed to be disappointing in their own way, but at least they’ll be spared an unwelcome reception, since none are likely to start.

In spite of some questionable summer recruitment, Liverpool is finally starting to come into its own. Brendan Rodgers has settled on a shape that gets the best out of his key players, Daniel Sturridge is starting to look sharp again on his return from injury, Coutinho is arguably the most in-form midfield schemer in the league right now, and Emre Can has been a revelation in defense. Even human headline generator Mario Balotelli is coming into form, and the Italian won Thursday’s Europa League game against Besiktas by expertly dispatching a late penalty. Because he’s Balotelli, though, he can’t even win a game for his team without still getting criticized.

Balotelli’s captain, soon-to-be Los Angeles Galactic Steven Gerrard, was not too impressed with Balotelli taking control of the decisive penalty away from stand-in skipper Jordan Henderson. This is absurd for a number of reasons. First of all, why is an active player commenting on his own team during the season? I know we’re all treating this season like Stevie G’s farewell tour, but that was an obvious show of poor judgment. Secondly, a captain throwing one of his own players under the bus is shameful, but we can safely assume Gerrard is just following his manager’s example.

More to the point, though, why the hell would Balotelli not take the penalty? As much as he recently seemed in danger of becoming a parody of himself, let’s not forget that Balotelli has won titles and cups in two major leagues, and is perhaps the most accurate penalty taker in Europe. Jordan Henderson fancies himself as the next Liverpool captain, but if Liverpool get another penalty decision in its favor this weekend, he should stick to pretending to be a hard man, and leave the spot kicks to the pros.

Frustratingly for column-fillers like myself, Southampton bring no such melodrama into this weekend’s match. After overhauling their entire team last summer and bringing in a new manager, the team’s league standing actually improved. No disgruntled players angling for a move elsewhere, no question marks over expensive but ill-conceived signings, and no endless over-analysis of the manager’s tactics. It’s almost as if they have the damn thing figured out. They defied preseason expectations, and the long-awaited “finding out” is yet to take place. An injury here, a loss of form there, but the Saints are still winning games and holding on stubbornly to the fourth place spot that the three teams directly below them probably feel entitled to have.

Southampton has the meanest defense in England, conceding only 17 goals all season, so Liverpool will have a task on its hands to break down that backline. This isn’t exactly a case of irresistible force meets immovable object, as Liverpool has only scored 36 goals itself, but there’s no doubt that the return of Sturridge to the starting lineup makes the Reds more potent. A draw on Sunday probably does more to help the teams that separate these two sides in the table, and Tottenham and Arsenal fans will surely be hoping that this one ends in a stalemate. For entertainment purposes, that should give both teams more reason to lift the shackles and really go for it. They may both end up missing on European qualification when all is said and done, but it will have been fun watching them try.