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Toffees come unstuck:

Many years ago, before I was able to drive, Dad and I relied upon my Godparents, ardent Saints supporters themselves, for transport to matches. Living in a village just a short drive away from us, as grateful as we were for the lifts, they had an almost incredible trait for running late. As if the prospect of another nail-biting afternoon at St. Mary’s wasn’t enough to jangle the nerves, Dad and I would be regularly left pacing the living room, kick-off now under just two hours away. The plan of action back in those days involved hopping on the free bus (then included in the price of your ticket) having parked up at the station, enduring the journey as it skirted through the city centre to the tune of riotous away supporters who usually elected to congregate in the upper deck. Finally, tackling the final gauntlet on foot, the mad dash leaving you out of breath and almost exasperatedly falling through the turnstile, relieved the whole ordeal was over for another couple of weeks.

This past Saturday could quite easily have seen a throwback to my more spritely days, especially considering I was tempted to delay departure in order to catch some of the early game, which turned out to be a Midlands classic, a topsy turvy affair ultimately finishing in a 4-3 victory for Wolves over Leicester, Diego Jota rounding off his hat trick with minutes to spare. Usually we leave Wiltshire at 12:30pm, arriving in plenty of time and therefore, I thought a half an hour swing would not impact overly. Thankfully however, I elected against this decision, gridlocked traffic in both Salisbury and latterly Southampton (thanks in large part to the ongoing roadworks at the Millbrook flyover – quickly becoming the bain of my life), meant another Houdini act in order to make it to the ground on time.

Fortunately Dad’s still able to match me stride for stride (he has been warned, if he loses his legs in the coming years he may just be cut adrift as I can’t bear the thought of being caught up in even more traffic) and we darted through the heart of the city. Passing the Civic Centre (which always brings a smile to my face, rekindling memories of Peter Rodrigues, holding a yellow and blue draped FA Cup aloft on its balcony in front of a sea of supporters in 1976), Solent University, along Old Northam Road, across the railway bridge (no doubt a staple of so many supporters matchdays, its inner walls decked with an array of club legends, from Benali to Le Tissier as one relives the club’s illustrious history walking one end to the other) before finally spotting the bright white spines of St. Mary’s upper reaches, paradise found.

By the time we’d reached the top of the Northam, the oddly chosen entrance music (Nas’s ‘Hate Me Now’) was bellowing out over the tannoy as the teams journeyed through the tunnel and out onto the pristine playing field, resembling a snooker table more than a football pitch, the Saints ground staff outdoing themselves once again. One thing that became immediately evident was the lack of red patches caused by empty seats, a stark contrast from Wednesday’s FA Cup exit, the visitors also impressively backed, Everton selling out their allocation meaning in the region of 3,000 Toffees fans making the long trip down from Merseyside.

Saints were seeking back to back home wins for the first time since April 2017 and to try to achieve this, Hasenhuttl enlisted the services of all action midfielder Pierre Hobjerg, returning after suspension and Danny Ings who had recovered from a knock, the only two changes from the immensely impressive win at Leicester. Everton came out of the blocks strongly, winning a couple of corners but the hosts soon responded, the rejuvenated Ward-Prowse, flourishing since Ralph’s arrival, seeing his shot blocked after Targett had made good progress down the left flank. The aforementioned Targett continued to look a threat, winning a corner after neat build up play involving Redmond and Ings. The resultant set piece was deliciously delivered and met by Ings who’s goalward glancing header was clawed out by Pickford who displayed cat like reflexes to keep the score level.

Recently linked with a move to St. Mary’s, Ademola Lookman came close for The Toffees, assisted by Bernard but the shot was brilliantly blocked by Bednarek who for me, put in the most dominant display at Centre Half since the departure of Van Dijk last January. Not content with just his defensive dominance, the Pole then turned defence into attack, showcasing further qualities in perfectly lofting a ball over the top of the Everton defence, into the path of Ings who hit a venomous first time strike that Pickford was equal to. The England number one looked to mount an attack for his side, accurately guiding to Bernard with a booming goal kick but this was no match for the exemplary vision and awareness of Bednarek, who intervened once more.

After an accomplished opening, Targett going from strength to strength in recent weeks deputising for the injured Bertrand, the left back was withdrawn having suffered a knock of his own, forcing an early change and the introduction of Cedric to the unfamiliar left side of defence. Moments later, Saints should have been in front as a fluid move saw Ings move onto Hojbjerg, who in turn provided for Redmond, sliding past Pickford only to be denied by the outside of a post. Somehow the contest remained goalless at the break, despite the visitors diverting onto the very same post Redmond had just struck, Gomes having dispossessed Ings in his own area.

After the restart, Lucas Digne, looking a snip at £18 million following his summer move from Barcelona, blessed with pace and technical ability, put said attributes in practice to set up Sigurdsson. The Icelander, so often a thorn in Saints side, met Digne’s centre but McCarthy was alert to repel. And Saints were doubly grateful following the reprieve as moments later, they opened the scoring. James Ward-Prowse picked up possession from a Zouma header and, renowned for his clean striking of the ball, unleashed an unstoppable drive from a full 20 yards out. The shot rippled the right corner of the net as it evaded the outstretched glove of Pickford, further raising the decibel level inside St. Mary’s as the home faithful out sung the scouse contingent for the duration of the afternoon.

With the setback, panic clearly set in and Silva introduced forward Calvert-Lewin but rather than inspiring a comeback, the damage worsened. Nathan Redmond, a menace throughout, constantly hassling and harrowing the opposition whilst covering every possible blade of grass, chased Danny Ings’ through ball. Digne, now showing off his blazing speed in a defensive sense, caught up with Redmond, sticking out a toe but the touch inadvertently rerouted the ball into his own net, low enough to render goalkeeper Pickford helpless. So, Saints now two goals to the good but as jubilant as the majority of supporters were, my lifelong cynicism remained present, wary of giving up similar advantages in previous weeks, namely the two cup ties versus Derby.

With time running out, Everton were forced to opt for a more direct approach, peppering the home side’s area with crosses. However, McCarthy marshalled his six yard box fantastically, confidently punching to safety on numerous occasions, an attribute of his so often overlooked in my opinion. The result should have been rubber stamped, Stephens heading wide, unopposed and from merely a few yards out. However, when no serious danger seemed apparent, in typical Saints fashion, their guard was let down, allowing Sigurdsson to precisely pick out a corner. A Long injury added to the drama, extending the injury time to an astonishing eight minutes but in reality, I should never have feared as under the leadership/organisation of Hasenhuttl, the side has been completely transformed and are a different animal.

Following on from that remarkable 2-1 victory with just 10 men at Leicester, Saints repeated the feat, racking up another three points and taking Hasenhuttl’s win tally to 4 in just eight games in charge, remarkable when you consider Saints had only won once under the stewardship of Hughes since the start of this season. The effect of the new managerial appointment has been nothing short of miraculous, each player working their socks off for the team and reaping the rewards of additional training sessions.

Those previously ousted under Hughes (Bednarek, Romeu, Ward-Prowse etc) have returned with a vengeance, looking reborn. A quick look at the statistics from Saturday’s match will show the visitors having dominated possession, 60% in fact but this does not nearly tell the story. Hasenhuttl is clever, happy to allow the opposition control of the ball in non threatening areas and instructing his charges to press at precisely the correct moments, avoiding over exertion and forcing visiting teams into errors in the process. Various squad members have come out, stating their enthusiasm for Ralph’s teachings and the fact that he demands so much more when compared to the previous seemingly lacks’ regime. In no time at all, Saints have become a joy to watch once more and dare I say, with the new approach and content of key players, I see no cause for concern in terms of a relegation battle this season.

In his post match press conference Hasenhuttl was quoted as saying “it was the best performance I have seen until now”, “We could have scored four or five times minimum today and we hit the post twice” and finally, “With this open-mindedness and a team who wants to learn, I enjoy every day I work with these guys, because we have fantastic characters”. Drawing on that last point, you certainly get the impression that the feeling is mutual and with no fixture this weekend due to FA Cup elimination, a perfect opportunity is given for further training sessions. Undoubtedly Ralph will use every waking second to his advantage, preparing his side perfectly for a big week that includes matches against sides near Saints in the standings, Crystal Palace and Burnley.

Sunday saw the small matter of a trip to enemy territory for the lady’s side, Portsmouth to be precise, for a Hampshire FA Challenge Cup Quarter Final. Saints recent reformation meant that Pompey currently ply their trade in a division two steps higher than their south coast rivals (I suppose they have to be outdoing us in at least one sense), so the challenge was always going to be a tough one. However, an upset was on the cards in the 18th minute when Georgie Freeland flicked onto Chloe Newton, continuing her rich vein of form and slotting home into the bottom corner.

The visitors held the advantage until the break and looked likely to progress, only for Portsmouth to equalise through Albuery. The comeback was complete with just under 10 minutes remaining, scorer of the equaliser Albuery, teeing up Collighan who fired home into the top corner from distance. 2-1 is how it remained but it is testament to Spacey-Cale’s side that the contest required such an exemplary strike to prevent a period of Extra-Time. Although knocked out, Saints can take heart from the fact that they made the affair an incredibly tightly contested one, going to show the immense progress made in such a short space of time.

On Monday, Saints U23 side were also in Cup competition, this time the Premier League Cup, as they travelled to Yorkshire to face Leeds United. Leeds bossed the first period but Barnes fashioned a chance, his low shot however, no trouble for former Real Madrid goalkeeper Casilla making his Whites debut. The home side, roared on by multiple thousand supporters at the home of Tadcaster United, broke the deadlock, Halme unmarked in the area to head home. The Leeds team fielded was packed with quality and Tyler Roberts, a first teamer returning from injury, twice tested Lewis in the Southampton goal who stood firm.

Marcus Barnes dazzled in the first period, eluding the advances of three white jerseys, only for a last ditch challenge to take away a sight of goal, crucial the tackle was as it meant Leeds went into the break still holding an advantage. Saints started the second half well, looking rejuvenated after what was surely a stern team talk from manager Jaidi and it paid off. Afolabi made his way down the wing, centring for Sims, recently returning from a loan spell at Reading, who made no mistake from close distance. Moments later, Saints were ahead, the lively Barnes going it alone, cutting inside from out wide and finding the far corner with a deadly swing of the right boot.

However, the joy was short-lived as Saints were made to pay once more from a set piece. A corner was swung in, the visitors unable to clear their lines and the ball dropped to Diaz who slammed home, Lewis unable to get down low enough quick enough. Just five minutes later, Leeds were back in front, Edmondson alert to a loose ball in the area, burying at the second time of asking. For a game of such quality, it was almost disappointing to see it settled in such a scrappy fashion. Saints best chance to level came via Tyreke Johnson but the effort was met by Casilla in the Leeds goal and defeat was confirmed. Saints will no doubt be disappointed having lead but Jaidi’s side still stand a good chance of qualifying from the group, although top spot has been conceded to Newcastle United.

With January in full flow, transfer activity is ripe with the window open and according to The Daily Echo, Hasenhuttl would ideally like to make one or two acquisitions to bolster the squad. However, the theme of departure has continued thus far, Wesley Hoedt the latest to be shown the door, leaving for a loan at La Liga’s Celta Vigo. The Dutchman has talent but personally, I felt that his performances were far too inconsistent, and his character was questionable. Upon leaving for instance, he was questioned by reporters and stated being bemused by his lack of appearances since Ralph’s arrival, playing up his own performances. The fact that Saints conceded countless goals with Hughes in charge, Hoedt a regular fixture in the side, speaks for itself.

Another player reportedly set to leave is Cedric, supposedly in advanced talks with Inter Milan. The Right Back has been a good servant to the club, if at times, inconsistent. I remember only a couple of seasons ago fearing his potential pinching, whisperings Barcelona were interested but now, the vast majority of fans would welcome his release. In a sense, he’s been unlucky, out injured when Hasenhuttl took over but having said that, stating in the press “I thought we’d lose, even when ahead” after the 3-2 loss at Fulham, as well as heading straight down the tunnel, not bothering to applaud fans after the Everton fixture have done him no good and a change of scenery is probably the best for both parties. Ralph clearly is determined to bring along youth whilst in charge and with Ramsay and Valery proving adept at the Premier League level, minus a few teething problems, the decision cannot be questioned.

Back to incomings and it may be a case of returns rather than fresh faces. Saints are hardly spoilt with an embarrassment of riches at the top end of the pitch, Long, Austin, Obafemi and Ings all injury prone. In fact, Redmond has really been the only constant and an injury to him would certainly seriously harm the team’s chances. Therefore, I’m all for the new boss pondering recalling both Guido Carillo and Sofiane Boufal from their loans at both Leganes and Celta Vigo respectively. Starting with Guido, brought in last January but never really given a fair crack of the whip, the Argentinian has tallied up 5 goals in 13 La Liga appearances and having shelled out £19 million for his services, surely there’s no harm in handing him an opportunity? As for Boufal, his talent is undoubted but it seemed at times he simply wasn’t suited for the English league. However, he seemingly clashed with Hughes and perhaps with Ralph now in charge, both players could flourish under his stewardship, as have the likes of Bednarek, Romeu and Ward-Prowse.

As mentioned earlier, no game this weekend means full focus on next week’s Premier League double header, starting off with the visit of Crystal Palace, before Saturday’s long trip to Lancashire to take on Burnley at Turf Moor. With Saints currently sandwiched between the sides in the standings, all three teams having 22 points to their names after precisely the same amount of games played, you feel that there is great potential to build momentum and look to surge up the table.

Palace are the epitome of inconsistent. December saw the incredible 3-2 victory away to Champions Manchester City and they were unlucky last time out to succumb to a 4-3 defeat at current leaders Liverpool. However, disappointing dropped points in home matches against the likes of Watford and Cardiff, whilst also losing at fierce rivals Brighton, explains precisely why the Eagles currently languish in the bottom half of the table. However, possessing the talent of Zaha, as well as Townsend who often has an eye for the outrageous, mean they must be taken seriously. On top of that, this fixture has quite often seen a trend in recent seasons, with the visiting team regularly coming out on top, hopefully this is not the case next Wednesday night.

Onto Burnley and after Dyche’s heroics last season, securing Europa League football with a team that gets by on an incredibly low budget, the Clarets have reverted to form this term. Their slow start was put down by many to the fact that they were having to play European qualifiers in July but Dyche’s men were knocked out in late August by Olympiacos and therefore, this can no longer be used as a reason for dismal form. Residing in the bottom three for much of the season, results have improved of late, crucial home victories seeing Brighton, West Ham and Fulham put to the sword, whilst also toppling seemingly doomed Huddersfield at The John Smith’s. Having said that, it was only last month that Everton visited Turf Moor and tore the home side to pieces during a 5-1 win. Saints form in Burnley hasn’t been great over the years, however, a 1-1 draw thanks to Gabbiadini’s late equaliser was secured last season and hopefully, the more inconsistent version of The Clarets turns up a week on Saturday, allowing Saints to capitalise.

Thanks for reading,


Dan

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