The Saints were struggling to sell the first leg out until a couple of hours before kick-off, despite charging just £20 a seat, and after 3 straight league defeats doubts were beginning to grow over their French manager.
One look at the opposition team-sheet on Wednesday night and it was possible to sympathise with Puel who has taken over a Southampton side that seems permanently rooted in transition.
Regulars to St Mary’s have become accustomed to the high-powered approach of Mauricio Pochettino and Ronald Koeman but Puel’s predecessors had Adam Lallana, Nathaniel Clyne and Dejan Lovren, all lining up in the fluorescent lime of Liverpool on Wednesday, at their disposal.
A further glance down the squad list would have revealed Saido Mane, away at the African Cup of Nations with Senegal but Liverpool’s top-scorer this term having left the south coast last summer for £35 million.
Midfield powerhouse Victor Wanyama, who joined Pochettino’s Tottenham Hotspur, and Graziano Pelle, last season’s joint-top-scorer who left for the gross riches on offer in China, also departed in the same window and considering he took over with the squad in another state of upheaval, Puel has done well to direct the Saints to tenth in the Premier League as well as a cup semi-final within his first 6 months in the country.
Still, the prospect of the semi-final, against Jurgen Klopp’s title-challenging Liverpool, a side they were thrashed 1-6 by in last season’s competition, was a sell made harder by the fact they have scored just 10 league goals at home this season and captain Jose Fonte, the centre-half who has been with the club since their days in League One at the turn of the decade, has grown disillusioned enough to voice his desire for a move away.
Fonte’s request for a transfer saw him left out of the squad for the visit of Liverpool and with that there was a sense that Southampton had hit a ceiling. The years of Pochettino and Koeman brought the gradual rise of 8th, 7th and 6th-place finishes but there are only so many players that can be lost before the inevitable regression sets in. Limp defeats to Spurs, West Bromwich Albion and Everton over the festive period aroused suspicion that reversion may have begun to cloud over St Mary’s.
With a 1-0 win however a cogent, yet quiet, response to those doubts was issued. The lead which they will take back to Anfield in a fortnight’s time would have been stronger had Nathan Redmond converted two presentable chances and Cedric Soares hadn’t negated the chance to find the better-placed Jay Rodriguez when clean through.
Klopp’s Liverpool were oddly passive, while the opening 20 minutes would have brought fear that Puel’s pragmatic approach was the order for the night, but with the backs against the wall of an uncertain future, Southampton’s performance for the following 70 minutes would have restored optimism.
“Now it’s important to show this level in all of our games in the Premier League and it’s important people understand we can do this game in the league,” said Puel who immediately diverted attention to this weekend’s game at Burnley.
For domestic improvement, he will require the translation in form of match-winner Redmond, vibrant on Wednesday night but for most of the season a source of frustration as the 22-year-old has limited his potential to just glimpses after his £11 million move from Norwich in the summer. Puel will also need added consistency from Jordy Clasie and especially Dusan Tadic, the latter struggling to replicate his efforts of last season where he scored 7 goals and made 12 assists.
Virgil van Dijk, solid enough to compensate for Fonte’s absence alongside Maya Yoshida, Oriel Romeu, and Ryan Bertrand were as excellent on Wednesday as they have been all season but Puel’s team has been let down by a scarcity of conviction.
Only the league’s top 6 have created more chances and taken more shots per game than Puel’s supposedly ‘dull’ Southampton but they have lacked anybody, apart from Charlie Austin who managed 9 goals before getting injured in early December, to assert themselves around the box.
Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg arrived to great excitement in the summer after receiving his education from the Pep Guardiola school at Bayern Munich but has only littered otherwise unassuming displays with classy touches.
Steven Davis maintains the midfield beat but will not decide games, Jay Rodriguez has shown possible mental scars that still linger from his long-term injury while Sofiane Boufal and Jeremy Pied, who Puel trusted enough to bring with him from France, have managed just 636 minutes between them due to injuries. Shane Long, who crafted Redmond’s late chance on Wednesday evening, has mostly been restricted to late-injections of energy from the bench.
Puel had an instructive hand in the development of Ricardo Pereira, Alassane Plea and Vincent Koziello during his time at Nice and that made him an attractive prospect to Southampton who have James Ward-Prowse, Matt Targett and Sam McQueen waiting to realise their potential.
The Frenchman has also used 21-year-old Harrison Reed and the 19-year-old Josh Sims but a squad short in telling quality or match-winning contributions has not been a useful environment to bleed young talent. The impending loss of the captain’s experience and influence around the dressing room will also provide a telling blow.
The stern demeanour and uninspiring press conferences from the Frenchman has done little to halt the spread of apathy around Southampton’s fan-base and the manager’s PR team has had to advise him to adopt a more upbeat mood in-front of the media.
The 1-0 defeat to Liverpool has kept Southampton on track for their first piece of major silverware since the 1976 FA Cup and most of Wednesday night’s performance has indicated the Saints are still marching in the right direction, despite the numerous small fires Puel has been busy putting out on the south coast.
The repeated player upheaval, the constant links with the likes of Van Dijk to moves away at the harm of any attempt to install stability and the steady flow of injuries have done little to help, but Wednesday night would have brightened the outlook. The build-up may have exposed signs that the project was slowing but Southampton’s response was typical; never write them off.