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Capital Double Bubble or Double Trouble ?!


The Europa League commitments of Arsenal meant that this season’s fixture at the Emirates was shifted to a Sunday. Situated in North London, the home of the Gunners is notoriously difficult to access and it is for this reason that during previous visits, Dad and I have elected to travel via supporters coach. However, the speed of a bus, coupled with designated service station stops, as well as an hour’s trip from St. Mary’s back to Wiltshire, prolongs the day and these points served as an off put. So much so in fact that I decided to bite the bullet, braving the congestion and gung ho style of so many of our capitals drivers, even risking the health of my newly acquired Volkswagen Polo in the process.

Proudly adorning the famous yellow and blue with the fixture being away from home, we left the house with a spring in our step (a constant when the prospect of watching our beloved Saints looms – irrespective of how the team is currently faring), Dad giving out hushed cries of “yellows”, increasing in volume as the car drew closer. The journey was underway just before 10am and but for a trickle of congestion near Wembley (the site of the Carabao Cup Final between Chelsea and Manchester City later the same day) due to an accident, thankfully saw relatively little incident and we arrived at 12:30. Rather than arranging a specific parking spot beforehand, I went for the blag it approach of heading straight there, hoping to find a street a short walk away and luckily enough it paid off.

After a quick bite to eat, haranguing Dad in the process for a crumb or two that had gone astray in the new motor, we set about conquering the final stretch on foot. The route itself was only 15/20 minutes and as straight as an arrow, no trouble whatsoever on what was a beautiful, albeit unusually sunny February day. Passing a couple of local schools that offered parking for supporters, we drifted under a Victorian style road bridge and upon reaching the other side, the Emirates stadium stood impressively, its myriad of glass and white structural features glistening in the sunlight.

The first sight to greet us at ground level was the club megastore, positioned directly above are seven large silver letters, spelling out the name of the team that calls the Emirates its home. On the grounds in front sit two canons, each pointing in opposite directions, a nod to The Gunners’ humble beginnings, formed by workers at the Woolwich Munitions factory in 1886. Situated alongside were a couple of dubious looking (to say the least) home supporters, glaring as they swilled their cans of Foster’s as we proudly strode past in our Saints shirts. Inevitably, a jibe was made, a muffled offering of “Pompey” and I simply couldn’t bite my tongue, returning with a statement of “Tottenham”, quickly followed by “Table” – a reminder who currently rules the roost in North London judging by league position. No further comments, Arsenal supporter 0-1 Dan – I hoped that trend would continue.

The Emirates is a stadium substantially raised and therefore, in order to access its turnstiles, you either must tackle a mountain of steps or seek out the slope, helpfully located near the away section. With Dad’s impairment, it made sense to opt for the latter, although if we had of attempted to climb the innumerable amount of steps, undoubtedly I would have been the one sent flying whilst Dad remained upward, white stick in hand – cue confused looks/hilarity from passers-by. Just as the slope came into view, we were intercepted by a lady who we’ve discussed all things Saints with for what must now be the best part of ten years. You could not wish to meet a more dedicated supporter and along with her daughter, they are a constant presence at Saints fixtures come rain or shine, wherever, whenever.

Football based friendships can be somewhat strange. Although there’s a strong air of familiarity that’s been struck up over such a long period of time, even now I could not for the life of me tell you her name. After the standard swapping of pleasantries, we shared our score predictions and discussed travel methods. Having travelled on the supporters coach, as the lady and her daughter do for every away match, we were treated to a bit of gossip, the source being one of the coach drivers themselves. How true it is I’m unsure, but it regarded recent departure Cedric, currently plying his trade on loan at Inter Milan. Rumour has it that the fullback was seen in ‘For Your Eyes Only’ – a Southampton based strip club. Apparently, his better half discovered the Portuguese ‘sexting’ one of the dancers and this was the final straw, she demanded a fresh start. I don’t know about you, but I think Cedric’s been rather fortunate all things considered. Punishment for strip club visits and inappropriate messages to another woman? A move to Milan and an opportunity to feature for one of world football’s biggest clubs, some guys get all the luck.

After sharing a giggle or two over the stunning piece of information we’d just been fed, onward we trod, up the long and winding slope overlooked by a cascade of glass that makes up much of the stadium’s exterior, this particular section encasing a hospitality area, as home supporters were wined and dined in the run up to kick-off. As per usual, with plenty of time to kill, we took a stroll around the stadium – one home supporter kindly showing concern upon spotting our yellow shirts amongst a sea of red, querying if we were aware of our whereabouts. Other features of the Emirates’ exterior are graphics of former players, packed with stats and trivia to engage supporters as they make their way inside. Not only this, in further tribute to a bygone era, a host of former Arsenal stars have been immortalized in the form of statues. Stalwarts such as Tony Adams, to Thierry Henry in infamous post goal knee slide pose and the Dutch Wizard Dennis Bergkamp, fully airborne, right leg outstretched in order to bring the ball under his spell with yet another sublime first touch.

After a period of football nerding, we headed for the away entrance, a white banner draped above featuring the Saints crest and welcoming visiting supporters. Having collected Dad’s device for audio commentary, resisting the temptation of a £4.90 priced pint, we sought out our home for the afternoon, Row 19 of the Lower Clock End. This particular area of the Emirates is brandished in such a way as sitting proudly at its top is the famous clock that once call Highbury its home – a bold creation, primarily bright white with hands as black as the night sky. I only with that Saints could have done similar with the clock that once was a permanent fixture at The Dell – ensuring that a part of the club’s illustrious history lives on. 

As we settled into the stadium’s luxuriously oversized cherry red seats (more akin to a cinema than a football ground and bringing back memories of our visits to Stadium:MK in League One – what a difference ten years makes), I took to Twitter for information on the starting line ups. Hasenhuttl elected for three changes, including a goalkeeping change with Gunn replacing McCarthy as Saints went in search of a fifth unbeaten game away from home on the bounce. With three centre halves, Targett came in at Left Wing Back for Bertrand, whilst Armstrong featured from the start, Long not making the matchday squad. With Saints bereft of attacking players due to injury, Redmond played the role of lone striker and this almost bore instant fruit.

Quickest to a ball over the top, darting down the right, he cut back in order to widen the angle, but Arsenal keeper Leno made himself big to ensure the score remained level. It proved to be a pivotal moment so early on as shortly after, Arsenal took the lead. Alex Iwobi centre for Mkhitaryan, whose shot was heading wide but for an alert Lacazette to pounce and direct into the back of Gunn’s net. The travelling support were incensed, adamant that the Frenchman occupied an offside position but the replays proved otherwise. Xhakha then tried his luck with a dipping effort from distance but the attempt was off target and Saints looked to respond, mounting an attack of their own.

Targett made good ground down the left, delivering for Redmond who alertly nodded back for Armstrong at a back post position but Kolasinac thwarted the Scot’s close range header. Armstrong was growing in confidence and becoming more influential in the process as he picked out Targett in the box with an incisive pass to feet. The academy product sized up his chances, unleashing a left footed drive towards the bottom corner but again, Leno proved his worth, repelling with a firm handed diving save. 

Having survived a couple of scares, Arsenal then took advantage once more. Stephens dawdled in possession at the back, taking a heavy touch too many and was forced to concede possession to Gunn in an errant fashion. Under pressure and body not correctly set, the clearance was hurried and ultimately went directly to Iwobi in Arsenal red. The Nigerian surged down the wing, crossing for Mkhitaryan who added to his assist with a goal of his own, side footing from close range. As much as I have been an advocate of Stephens, the one time Plymouth Argyle youth has now made multiple fatal errors in recent matches and it may be time to turn to the experience of Yoshida. I had hoped this change would occur in North London but perhaps Ralph is keeping him fresh for Wednesday’s pivotal encounter with Fulham.

Saints hadn’t necessarily performed poorly but lacked a clinical edged and at 2-0 down with not twenty minutes on the clock, you couldn’t help but feel that the contest was all but settled already. Now well in the ascendency, it was almost 3-0 when Lacazette shaped to shoot in the box, only for Bednarek, looking a class above as always in the Saints side, sliding in to make a critical challenge. The Frenchman almost doubled his tally moments later, meeting a Xhaka corner but Gunn did well to meet the attempt. And it looked destined to be third time lucky as Lacazette sought to secure his brace, Ramsay displaying x-ray vision in picking his forward out with a pinpoint pass, only for his effort to spoon over the bar from merely a few yards out. Try as he might, Lacazette could not buy his elusive second goal of the game, Gunn saving with his legs to deny him once more and somehow, Saints avoided further damage entering the break. 

In the hope of getting back into the contest, Hasenhuttl made a double change at the break, Armstrong and Stephens sacrificed in favour of Austin and Obafemi, the latter recently back to full fitness following an injury outlay. A golden opportunity came the way of the visitors in the 52nd minute, Xhaka attempting to clear but only finding Ward-Prowse in his own area. The midfielder beautifully chested down before sending a volleyed attempt just inches wide of the upright. Arsenal, still in control at 2-0, but were not creating any clear cut chances as it appeared as though they were taking their foot of the gas, settling for what had already been inflicted upon the visitors.

Saints suffered a major blow in this contest and looking further down the road when, in the 65th minute, Obafemi, was forced off through injury. The youngster, having just returned from two months out, seemed so keen and full of gusto when introduced after the break, steaming into challenges and covering every blade of grass, no doubt determined to show his gratitude having recently been rewarded with a new contract. However, you can’t help but feel that by overdoing it, the injury was reaggravated and this meant an opportunity for Elyounoussi who came on in his place.

With under 20 minutes remaining, Austin mustered up a looping header but in truth, there was never enough power behind it to trouble Leno. Another sight of goal came the way of Ward-Prowse but unfortunately, the ball took a while to sit up and Kolasinac, brilliant in everything Arsenal did on the day, intervened with a tremendous block. The twinkle toes of Aubameyang almost stretched the lead but the substitute was denied excellently by Gunn having waltzed his way through the Saints area. Targett then waited patiently on the edge of the area following a corner, directing a half volley that was arrowing toward the top corner, only for Leno to tip behind for another set piece. 2-0 it finished though, leaving Saints submerged in the bottom three but a chance to put that right comes Wednesday with Fulham, one of only two teams below Saints in the table, making the trip to St. Mary’s.

Last Friday Radhi Jaidi’s U23 side were looking to bounce back from a debilitating 3-0 reverse at Newcastle United when Notts County were the visitors to Staplewood in the Premier League Cup. And they did so in style, racking up six goals, with just two in response as they now sit just a point behind Group leaders Newcastle and a point above fellow rivals Leeds United. The match was littered with stunning finishes and Tyreke Johnson got the ball rolling in this sense, just a couple of minutes into the contest, finishing with just one bite of the cherry having been supplied by Sims.

Saints, in firm control right out of the gate, were somehow pegged back, County Winger Osborne ending a slaloming run with a precise finish. The home side did regain the lead in the 25th minute however, Sims adding to his assist with a goal of his own, well picked out by a Tella flick. And it was 3 before the interval, Johnson doubling his tally to make Notts County’s uphill task even steeper. Dan N’Lundulu, recently having returned from injury, found himself on the scoresheet in the 64thminute. Jankewitz made good headway down the left wing, centring for the striker who made no mistake in side footing home.

With the ease at which Saints were carving through the County rear guard, they can be forgiven for a momentary lapse defensively, allowing Patching to reduce the arrears, curling around Harry Lewis from the edge of the box. That goal however, seemed to ignite the Saints side more so and baying for blood, N’Lundulu took his personal tally to two on the night, Sims once again involved who flicked the ball on before a devastating low finish. The constant menace of Sims saw him bag a deserved brace, the third Saints double of the night, as the pacey forward latched onto a long Ramsay pass before beautifully lobbing the opposing goalkeeper from all of 18 yards. Jaidi’s charges must now await Monday’s pivotal encounter between Newcastle and Leeds to decipher whether or not they’ve done enough to progress further.

And it was not just the reserve side who were showing the first team how it’s done. Having made it ten wins out of ten with a 3-0 win at New Milton, Marieanne Spacey-Cale’s women’s side were looking to book their place in the League Cup Final but to do so, they had to overcome Wycombe. In all truth, the outcome was never in doubt as our ladies, dominant from start to finish, demolished the visitors en route to a resounding 6-0 victory. The outcome was set in motion just two minutes in as Ellie Chaffe picked out the top left-hand corner with a stunning free-kick. Just shy of the 20 minute mark, the lead was doubled when Chloe Newton’s cleared cross fell to Phoebe Williams, who sledgehammered a right footed effort into the bottom left corner.

Newton, provider of the second, then found the back of the net herself in the 25th minute, finishing Shelly Provan’s cross into the bottom corner. The conclusion was soon beyond doubt as Saints secured a fourth and fifth goal prior to the half time break. Firstly, Georgie Freeland, supplied by another Provan delivery who was proving lethal from a wide position, left a Wycombe defender for dead before blasting into the top corner. Chaffe then made it five, securing a brace in the process, thundering home a low shot following Emma Gooden’s cross just five minutes before the break.

With Spacey-Cale’s team out of sight, the second half was a more subdued affair, the gulf between the sides allowing the side to drop down a gear of two with a forthcoming congested schedule to bear in mind. That being said, this approach did not prevent a sixth with fifteen minutes to go as Chaffe secured the match ball with a phenomenal hat-trick. Provan, playing the role of quarterback, spraying passes left, right and centre all day found Ella Pusey. Pusey, just entering the fray as a substitute, centred for Chaffe who tapped in from close range to rub salt in the wounds of Wycombe. 

Wednesday saw the visit of Fulham to St. Mary’s for what was a crucial fixture in the hunt for Premier League survival. With games against Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur looming, as well as key rivals nearby in the standings faltering in recent games (Brighton, Cardiff etc), it was pivotal that Saints capitalised. Having treated myself to a couple of days off work, we were afforded the opportunity to depart slightly earlier than usual, a chance seized in the knowledge that wading through the sea of commuters in trying to access the city of an evening can be trying to say the least. 

The decision to set off ahead of time was paying dividends and allowed for an eat in McDonald’s as opposed to the usual drive thru and dart pandemonium. Obviously being Dad’s turn to buy the grub, I took full advantage, sampling the new Grand Big Mac with Bacon. And yes, to settle the debate, of course it works with bacon added, as if that were ever in doubt. Having parked up at the Station in good time, we took a leisurely stroll towards the stadium, meeting a convoy of Fulham supporters spilling out of Yates’s as we reached the high street. The travelling support from South West London could be heard chanting the likes of “we’re f*cking sh1t” and “.. off to the Championship we go”, clearly attempting to make the best of a bad situation having spent the majority of their day in the pub, I suppose you cannot blame them.

One group of Cottagers included a primordial dwarf who lapped up his height aversion as his mates serenaded him with “we’ve got a midget” all the way to the ground. Passing, I couldn’t resist a playful, somewhat harsh tongue in cheek dig at Charlie Austin, remarking “I bet he’s still more of an aerial threat than our #10 – Sorry Chaz. We made our way past the many television broadcasting trucks stationed in the Northam Car Park, in preparation of beaming the game across the globe and darted towards Turnstile J. Upon entry it became apparent that Dad’s device for audio commentary had been left at the turnstile in anticipation of our arrival, a steward helpfully having advised. Obviously no chances were being taken this time around, the club’s staff determined to avoid missing us once again as we passed through.

Early for once

Trotting up the stairs as we made our way inside the arena, it was odd to see so many empty red seats as for once, we had made it to St. Mary’s with decent time to spare. Sadly a fair amount of bare red patches were apparent post the game getting underway, presumably form and the fixture being a midweek one enough to deter some. I found this unfortunate considering the magnitude of the game and essential need for support at such a crucial point in the season. That being said, this is not to undermine the efforts of those who did turn out who were magnificent throughout, wholeheartedly backing the team in everything they did.

Prior to kick-off, there was due to be another lights spectacular, an infamously controversial addition to this season.  Somehow however, the attempt was botched, leading to those in charge of the show having to manically race onto the pitch as the players exited the tunnel, removing a series of fire spitting black boxes to avoid an awkward happening – one way to topple the opposition I suppose. Personally, I was rather pleased as from memory, previous nights that have seen the lights included have lead to poor outcomes for the team, though in truth, it probably doesn’t make a big difference – perhaps just the superstitious make up of myself.

To the contest itself and Hasenhuttl made three changes from Sunday’s 2-0 defeat at Arsenal. The Austrian opted for the leadership/experience of Yoshida in favour of Stephens, whilst Bertrand and Austin came in for both Targett and Armstrong respectively for what was a make or break match in the team’s season. In the build up to the game Ralph undoubtedly had inspired words with his players and the advice had clearly been heeded in what was a promising start. Beginning the game on the front foot lead to the winning of a couple corners before Redmond, full of confidence and belief in his own ability, so refreshing to see after a difficult season last time out, cut in but his shot rose over the bar.

In the fifteenth minute a debatable decision from the referee lead to Saints having what looked like an opener ruled out. With the ball ricocheting off Nordtveit into the air above the opposition area, Austin merely stood his ground. The keeper attempted to collect, failed in doing so, taking a tumble in the process whilst Charlie guided into an unobstructed net. Anthony Taylor adjudged that Rico in the Fulham goal has been impeded and the goal did not stand. Rico continued to look uneasy and it was his misjudgement that lead to Saints taking a deserved lead. Bertrand centred and the Cottagers goalkeeper elected to punch but his effort lacked power/distance. This combination meant that the ball fell to Romeu in a central position just shy of the area and the Spaniard managed to guide through a crowd for 1-0. 

Ori Oriol Ori Oriol Ori Oriol

With the visitors posing no threat, Saints were looking to extend their lead further. Austin, putting in a real shift on the night, busting a gut with clever movement, moved onto Redmond. The scintillating forward then teed up Hojbjerg, commanding for the duration in instructing teammates when/when not to press and geeing up the crowd with passion galore. This time unfortunately, his attempt to pick out the bottom corner sailed just wide, had it been on target, a second was a certainty with Rico flat footed.

Although firmly in the ascendancy, Saints were reminded that their lead was far from substantial when Fulham had their first real sight of goal with just under ten minutes of the first half to play. Mitrovic, always a handful at centre forward and a thorn in Saints side during December’s fixture at Craven Cottage, found Anguissa. Valery showed good discipline to intervene, forcing Anguissa into a more difficult attempt and his rushed shot failed to produce enough power to test Gunn. The next chance saw Mitrovic go from provider to having a go at goal himself as he crept in behind the Saints rear guard, only for a lacking of composure resulting in a shot that was lashed high up into the Chapel stand.

Just when it looked as though Fulham had a glimmer of hope of getting back in the game, Saints doubled their advantage through James Ward-Prowse. The academy product, enjoying a new lease of life under Hasenhuttl, made a lung busting charge into the box allowing him to be first to the ball following a low Rico save after Redmond had fired on target. The midfielder’s finish was his fourth of the season, all coming since the turn of the year – the Ralphampton effect one might say. 

Saints looked to pick up where they left off after the break, Redmond just missing the far post after a neatly worked Ward-Prowse free-kick. Fulham began to enjoy some possession of their own without much substance, the Captain storming into thwart one attack through Cairney in typical Hojbjerg fashion, before returning the favour with a rampaging burst forward himself, only to be hauled down by McDonald – a yellow card correctly brandished to the visitor’s man. Bertrand took charge of the resultant set piece but his attempt lacked enough dip and sailed harmlessly over Rico’s goal. 

Having run himself into the ground, Austin was replaced by Long in the 64th minute, Hasenhuttl looking to freshen up the forward line for the game’s final stages. His opposite number acted also, replacing playmaker Cairney, so instrumental in the team’s charge towards promotion last season. The decision was booed by the small contingent of travelling support, frustrated by developments after initial hope of a successful first season back in the top flight. Although toothless up top for the most part, when you possess players with Champions League experience such as Ryan Babel, there’s always a change of causing opposing teams problems and this so nearly was the case when the former Liverpool man was allowed to turn in the penalty area. Thankfully from a Saints perspective Bednarek was alert as ever, displaying excellent instincts in anticipating the worst case scenario and his block took the shot onto the bar. In fact, the back three were phenomenal throughout. The towering Vestergaard constantly breathing down the necks of attackers as the ball was played to feet and I don’t think it’s coincidental that the leadership and experience injected into the unit from the returning Yoshida lead to a first clean sheet since a 0-0 at Stamford Bridge in January.

Long wasn’t far away having used his pace to get clear of the Fulham defence, narrowly missing the far corner from an incredibly tight angle before Gunn, in only his second game back in the starting line up having been restored at the Emirates, prevented one time Saint Chambers from snagging a consolation. 2-0 it finished however in what was a humongous victory for Saints in their fight for Premier survival, Fulham now looking all but condemned for demotion, languishing in 19thposition with just 17 points to their name, 10 points adrift of safety. Their position lead to the axing of manager Ranieri, who survived just three months in the job. Ranieri, a former title winner in his time at Leicester, had a huge job on his hands and I think an understrength defence (63 conceded), coupled with poor recruitment (£100 million outlay in the summer) meant the Whites were doomed from the start. That being said, it’s a results based business and underusing fan favourites such as Cairney and Sessegnon will never endear a boss to a club’s fanbase.

After the game, Ralph Hasenhuttl thanked the fans, mentioning “it was a massive support from outside today, in every second of the game, you could feel everybody knows what it was about to win this game”. In the run up to the match the Austrian pleaded for backing and the home support delivered and then some. Saturday sees Saints make the long trip up to Lancashire to take on a Manchester United side in scintillating form since the reigns were handed over to Ole Solskjaer. Off the back of recent wins at Palace and Chelsea in the FA Cup, as well as holding leaders Liverpool last weekend, the prospect is a daunting one. However, football’s a funny old game, Burnley nabbed a point in a 2-2 at United not so long ago and at least Saints go into the contest off the back of a win. Thanks for reading as always and until next time, here’s to some more fantastic vocal support on the road at Old Trafford this Saturday. YELLOWS!

Thanks,

Dan

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