Liverpool’s team bus arrived at Anfield on Wednesday to a scene of celebration; red flares had decorated the frosty air as flags were proudly waved and the sound of continuous chanting could be heard inside the stadium.
It departed in a cloud of dejection, not a smile in sight, as they failed to “punch back hard” as per Jurgen Klopp’s demand and ceded the opportunity to reach a third final under the German.
Needing to overturn a 1-0 deficit against Southampton in the second leg of the League Cup semi-final, they could not score against Claude Puel’s side for a third time this season.
They have only been held in attack six times during the campaign and half of those have come against the south-coast club, who have remarkably not conceded in the competition en route to Wembley.
The ground had been willing a goal, but it materialised at the wrong end on 91 minutes - Shane Long shooting across Loris Karius to finish off a counter sparked from a wasted Liverpool corner following a penalty shout. 2-0 on aggregate. Over and out.
The Reds’ seven games since the turn of the year makes for comfortless reading: one win - unconvincingly in the FA Cup replay against Plymouth - three defeats, six goals for, eight against and only the performance at Manchester United to applaud.
The current state of play is so far removed from the exhilarating side that possessed fear factor, swagger and an unshakable sense of authority at the start of 2016-17.
Sadio Mane’s absence cannot be overplayed and his teammates must be thoroughly sick of having to tackle the 10-men-behind-the-ball trick.
The first half at Anfield was as expected: Southampton tucked in, defended deep and were ready to pull the trigger on the break, while the Reds tried to go through, over and around the black-and-grey wall in front of Fraser Forster.
Klopp has preached patience and intelligence ad nauseam in these kind of encounters, where the opponents’ primary desire is to stifle his side and punish any errors that result from Liverpool’s offensive focus.
And in the opening minutes, the Reds displayed a willingness to probe and pull apart their markers in an attempt to unravel Southampton’s organisation.
There were some intelligent passing choices, but Liverpool lacked the “decisive 10 per cent” - as Klopp has previously termed it - to ensure a translation on the scoreboard.
Philippe Coutinho, having committed to the club with a new deal sans a release clause that runs until 2022, fed Daniel Sturridge after Adam Lallana nicked possession off Ryan Bertrand.
The England international registered the game’s first shot on target on 16 minutes, cutting in on his left foot, but failing to cause Forster any concern.
Moments later, Roberto Firmino received the ball from teenager Trent Alexander-Arnold, who’d make a good run down the right, but his effort similarly didn’t trouble the visiting goalkeeper.
It was Karius that had to make the more telling contribution between the sticks in the first half, keeping Liverpool in the tie by denying Dusan Tadic. The German stopper, who has been impressive in his cup run-outs, rushed out to smother the 28-year-old’s shot with his feet.
Steven Davis then incredibly blazed high into the Kop, a welcome development for the home fans, when it seemed a goal was a certainty.
James Ward-Prowse dragged a shot wide to end the first 45, which gradually saw Liverpool’s early patience erode into desperation with too many heavy touches and aimless passes as the frustration grew.
After the interval, there were more nearly moments for Klopp’s men. Forster superbly recovered after a gaffe that saw him spill Emre Can’s strike from distance. He clawed the ball back before it crossed the line and then later watched a Sturridge overhead attempt rise above the posts.
Jordan Henderson had then delivered a stellar cross from the left into the area for the striker, but his volley couldn’t be steered on target.
There was plenty of effort from the Merseysiders, but the finishing touch had again deserted them. And when a glimmer of hope presented itself in the closing minutes - a penalty shout after Divock Origi went down under a challenge from Jack Stephens - it was quickly crushed.
Long finally finished off a break and with that, concluded the tie. The Saints deservedly march on to Wembley, while Liverpool are left to confront the reality that they only have a solitary win in 2017.