Why Southampton’s Champions League dream is very much alive
It transpires that Sadio Mane’s tardiness does have its benefits.
Fresh from being axed for rocking up late to the match with Liverpool in February, the Senegalese midfielder earned redemption by planting a delicate 83rd minute chip over Julian Speroni – just as the world prepared to dismiss Southampton (again).
The dawn of March is usually accompanied by a predictable Premier League collapse. Arsenal and Tottenham fans can attest to that. Saints’ 1-0 triumph over Crystal Palace scuppered any immediate repeat and lifted them to within a point of the top four. Attention now turns to their European rivals’ game-in-hand fixtures on Wednesday.
Both Manchester United and the Gunners could feasibly drop points on the road against Newcastle and QPR (resurgent and semi-resurgent respectively). Liverpool can only climb above the south coast club by beating Burnley; Spurs must win both of their outstanding games to keep in contention. Make no mistake, Ronald Koeman’s side has life in the Champions League race yet.
For much of the encounter with Palace, Southampton were greeted by a yellow and pale blue barricade. Alan Pardew’s side adopted the approach first deployed by Garry Monk’s Swansea at St Mary’s – inviting their opponents into the final third before swarming over them upon admission. It yielded the Swans maximum points at the start of February and has since been imitated by West Ham (0-0), Liverpool to a degree (0-2) and now the Eagles.
Belatedly, teams have realised Southampton will out slug them if they set up to attack from the off. The mind-set tweaked from a complacent ‘we can halt their impressive run’, to ‘let’s play for a point and see if we can pinch all three’. Until Mane’s goal late on Tuesday evening, that adjustment had left the Saints unable to breach an opposition defence at home in the league since January 1.
A run that looked set to continue when Graziano Pelle stabbed wide from close range as his personal drought stretched 11 games. Mane, too, spurned openings. After a run of one point from a possible nine, it appeared the widely-prophesised disintegration had commenced. That was until substitute James Ward-Prowse drove at the opposition defence, drilled a left-footed effort at Speroni and watched with glee as Mane coolly clipped home the rebound.
The upshot was that Southampton clung to their role of Champions League contenders. True, Martin Kelly played the goalscorer onside. And true, Jose Fonte avoided conceding a penalty for a rash barge on Yannick Bolasie. But navigate the match they did as they finally banished a 387-minute goal hiatus at home to record a vital win.
Perhaps a top four place is not beyond them after all.
The four sides left to visit St Mary’s – Burnley, Hull, Tottenham and Aston Villa – are embroiled in relegation or European battles. They can ill-afford to sit deep and accept a solitary point as the season creeps towards its conclusion. The tactics that left many teams exposed will likely resurface, with the Saints’ recent shaky form enticing opposition to risk defeat for victory. It was that collective cavalier attitude that contributed to the 8-0 demolition of Sunderland and helped Koeman’s side avoid momentum-sapping draws in the campaign’s early stages.
That leaves Southampton with six away trips that could define their season. Chelsea await on Sunday and Manchester City on the final day, with visits to Everton, Stoke, Sunderland and Leicester sandwiched in between. Not the most appetising of programmes, but it should hold no fear for a side with the third-best away record in the division behind the aforementioned title-chasing duo.
Factor in the return of key personnel and their objective looks plausible. Toby Alderweireld – instrumental as Belgium leaked just three goals before bowing out in the World Cup quarter-finals – should return to the heart of defence at Stamford Bridge. Victor Wanyama and Morgan Schneiderlin finally look up to speed after injury lay-offs; both impressed against Palace.
Three influential players all capable of starring for a top-four side. Why can’t that side be Southampton? Their absence was not negated by a young and flimsy squad – contributing to a slight dip in form – but their return leaves Koeman with a balanced and talented XI capable of emerging from any ground in England with a result.
The bunch of players that transformed Saints from relegation candidates to unlikely early title hopefuls now have an outside shot of causing a monumental upset.
Their season’s narrative has followed a similar script to that of Spurs striker Harry Kane. Nothing was expected of them. Their surprise emergence was lauded, but also accompanied by talk of impending failure. And yet they continue to impress. The young Englishman has finally convinced enough people that he possesses the talent to rival the league’s best, but the same can’t quite be said of Southampton, who lie in a permanent state of being one game away from catastrophe.
But just like they shrugged off the relegation chat and bounced back from five consecutive defeats at the end of 2014, Southampton have a penchant for proving us all wrong. They’re not the complete package, but they have no more faults than Arsenal, United, Liverpool and Tottenham.
Koeman admitted after the Palace victory that his side lacked confidence and branded the victory “crucial”. And he’s right on both accounts. He’ll just have to hope that Mane’s redemptive strike provides the perfect boost for Southampton to disprove us all one final time.
Ben Snowball - on Twitter: @BenSnowball