How would Ralph’s tricks fare against the Top 6?!
Having succumbed to West Ham, arguably Hasenhuttl’s first setback since taking the managerial vacancy (the loss to Cardiff, debatably also, however, Ralph had only had a matter of days to prepare his charges for the clash), reigning Champions Manchester City were next on the agenda, roared on by over 3,000 travelling fans at St. Mary’s for Sunday’s second of three televised matches. City were undoubtedly determined to claim victory following shock back to back losses, leaving them trailing leaders Liverpool by seven points as the race for the title picks up a head of steam.
Unfortunately the Jarvis household was struck by illness, marring the Christmas festivities and leaving Dad, bravely battling the dreaded man flu. In fact, at one point, I feared he may not even make the City game but alas, nothing could ever come between him and his beloved Saints, how foolish of me to think otherwise. The car journey consisted of more choking and spluttering than our defence of recent times, as I did my best Neo from the Matrix impression, ducking and diving in the hope of evading the vicious lurgy, all the while trying to focus on the road ahead. Thankfully, we made it in one piece, well, I did at least. Dad, on the other hand, resembling more of a broken man, a mere shadow of his usual self. Still, these are the lengths one goes to offer support.
Naturally, I made a joke of the supposed virus, suggesting that with the disabled badge already in tow, the Dusan Tadic like playacting was a tad unnecessary. However, it soon became apparent that the illness was authentic when Dad turned down a visit to the city centre’s Spitfire, a watering hole renowned for it’s Saints contingent on match days. Long time friend Clive was disappointed but understanding, appreciating the extreme nature of the illness, the only explanation fathomable, having deprived the old man a pre-match pint.
With traffic surprisingly scarce and a tipple opportunity rejected, we made it to our Northam seats in plenty of time, witnessing the bowl fill with spectators in the run up to kick-off. I had hoped for a settled period prior to the match getting underway but sadly, this was not the case. Dad recently opted to ditch the wittering’s and blindingly obvious expressions of BBC Solent’s Dave Merrington, instead, trialling the club’s new Audio Description service, a setup designed specifically for visually impaired supporters. The commentary itself is much more descriptive, almost painting a picture of the action, allowing Dad to visualise the whereabouts of the ball etc. However, the service relies upon a radio/headset being delivered and for the second match running, for whatever reason, this did not materialise. Therefore, moments before the players were due to exit the tunnel and out onto the hallowed turf, I had no choice but to scale the Northam stand like a headless chicken, approaching numerous stewards in the hope of rectifying matters. Eventually I located the Head Steward who was thoroughly helpful, arranged for the equipment to be brought up to us and thankfully, all was well, now for the small matter of the match.
After discovering the line ups, a sense of fear and dread entered my heart and surprisingly enough, it wasn’t fully down to the quality within City’s ranks. The Champions undoubtedly possess plenty, even without playmaker De Bruyne, who has struggled through an injury riddled season. Manchester’s blue half’s side included threats galore, particularly in an attacking sense with David Silva, Raheem Sterling and Sergio Aguero all featuring in the starting line up. As for the hosts, Hasenhuttl elected to go for a shockingly weakened side, plenty of youth with Bednarek and academy produced fullback Kayne Ramsey making his debut. Further forward, Elyounoussi was given a rare opportunity to impress, whilst Charlie Austin played the role of lone striker. I appreciate the fatigue induced over a fixture heavy Christmas period, however, I think the selection was a damning indictment of modern top flight football, Ralph likely viewing the fixture as almost a ‘free hit’, with more crucial games later in the season, with the likes of Cardiff, Huddersfield and Fulham all yet to visit St. Mary’s.
City showcased their attacking prowess almost immediately, Stephens gifting possession to Sterling, who subsequently supplied David Silva, only for McCarthy to make an outstanding stop with the use of just one glove. Saints responded with a glorious chance to take an unlikely lead when Elyounoussi, back in from the cold, played a defence splitting whipped pass through to Austin. Unfortunately, the talisman’s heavy touch meant that the opportunity got away from him, allowing Ederson to collect. Unsurprisingly, with chances always at a premium against sides of such calibre, Saints were made to pay when City opened the scoring. The two Silva’s combined, Bernardo cutting back for teammate David, who coolly finished from close range.
With the deadlock broken, City took control of proceedings, almost furthering their lead in audacious fashion. The Cityzens, with true ball players in every position, riskily played out from the back as always insisted upon, Ederson calm as ever with Saints players hassling just inches away, mounted a surge forward in almost video game style. The ball eventually made its way to Mahrez, who glided into the home side’s half before ultimately blazing wide. Sterling then made it to the byline, cutting back for Aguero but again, met his match in McCarthy who was quietening naysayers following recent criticism received.
With the score still just 1-0, Saints were alive in the contest and almost levelled when Charlie Austin fashioned a fantastic glancing header from Ward-Prowse’s set piece, only for Ederson to scramble across his goal line and claw away. As the game approached half time, Saints did indeed find themselves on level terms. Hojbjerg capitalised on a dallying Zinchenko, stealing possession and as he burst into City’s box, I nervously awaited for the chance to be spurned, subconsciously hoping that the ball would be squared. However, Hojbjerg confidently persisted before unleashing an unstoppable drive into the roof of Ederson’s net.
You felt that having levelled, it was critical that Saints remained on terms until the break but that wasn’t to be when disaster struck. Having just had a genuine penalty appeal turned down when the struggling Zinchenko brought down Ward-Prowse after a sublime diagonal pass from Stephens, City retook the lead. Yet again danger sprang from the wide areas, this time, Sterling making headway before cutting back, the pass ricocheting off of Ward-Prowse for a gut-wrenching own goal. It went from bad to worse when in minutes, the visitors found themselves two goals to the good. Zinchenko, atoning for his shaky spell, crossed, Bednarek suffered a momentary lapse in concentration, the potent Aguero capitalised by nodding home.
In all truth, the second half was all but a training exercise, with Saints’ small glimmer of hope instantly extinguished as the first period came to a close. The reigning Champions could have extended their lead but you sensed they were cruising in third gear, not wanting to over exert themselves ahead of the pivotal match with leaders Liverpool on Thursday. Sterling, a menace all day, played a deft one-two with David Silva before unleashing a rasping drive which stung the hands of McCarthy. Then, Aguero struck the bar, spinning beautifully with his back to goal, only for his effort to be a couple of inches too high.
With just under half an hour remaining, Ward-Prowse who had been so unlucky for the own goal, intervened in the nick of time, thwarting Aguero who was waiting to slot home into an unguarded far post. Ward-Prowse put in an impressive display for me, particularly defensively, covering plenty of ground with countless track backs. The midfielder, who so much was expected of, was said to a Hasenhuttl player, having been linked with a move to Leipzig last year. It will be interesting to see whether the Austrian’s arrival will see him finally take the next step in his career. Referee Paul Tierney continued his poor showing, denying Sterling a penalty when it looked definite that substitute Valery had clipped his heels.
Ralph opted for one final throw of the dice, introducing Shane Long but the move was in hope more than anything. It had little effect, although, the day did not get any better, even without the score line worsening. Captain Hojbjerg, having put in another all action performance, recklessly took out Fernandinho and was shown a straight red. Having seen the replay, the outcome was hard to argue with and once again, as talented as the Dane is, these lapses in composure desperately need eradicating. The team sorely misses his presence in midfield and will now have to cope without once more, for an additional four matches, the ban lengthened due to being his second red card of the season.
The festive fixtures did not relent, as Sunday’s loss was followed up by a trip to Stamford Bridge to face Sarri’s Chelsea. The hosts had scored in 27 consecutive fixtures against Saints, could Hasenhuttl’s men put a stop to that torrid run? Unfortunately, having been moved from New Year’s Day as originally scheduled, I was unable to attend. However, on an unrelated note, this afforded an opportunity to visit Shrewsbury’s New Meadow. The Shrews entertained Joey Barton’s Fleetwood Town, in what was possibly the worst game of football I have ever witnessed, a dire 0-0 with no real talking points. Still, it was ground 75 notched up in our quest to visit all 92 football league grounds.
Back to the Chelsea clash, thankfully I managed to discover a stream of the match. Dad’s happy enough listening to BBC Solent’s commentary for away games we’re unable to attend, no doubt having acclimatised to it over the years. However, I find it difficult to concentrate and if possible, always seek out an opportunity to watch, then able to comment on incidents, as I would do when in attendance. In terms of team selection, Hasenhuttl certainly elected to go much stronger than for the City game, eight changes in total. Angus Gunn, the highly rated recruit from our previous opponents made his debut between the sticks, ironic, in that the only time I have seen him play before was at Stamford Bridge, a tremendous display whilst on loan at Norwich City last season as the side’s were paired in the FA Cup. Cedric was given his first chance under the new manager, featuring at left back, whilst Valery resumed his role on the opposite side. The youth trend continued, 19 year old Calum Slattery rewarded for his sterling performances in the U23s with a place on the bench.
Chelsea lead the way in terms of possession early on but Saints were not giving away an inch, remaining resolute in all areas. Morata saw a glimpse of goal in the 12th minute as a pass sliced through the middle of the visitors rearguard, but the Spaniard appeared to be unaware as to how much space he’d been afforded and a flicked header was easily collected by Gunn. Saints soon responded with a chance of their own as Cedric swung a delivery into the Chelsea box, only for Ings’ effort to evade the crossbar by a few yards.
Willian shifted onto his left foot inside the Saints area but Yoshida blocked brilliantly to ensure that the shot avoided the target. Maya was fantastic all night, leading with authority, wholeheartedly committed in what was arguably his best ever performance in the red and white. Soon after the game the Japanese international flew out of the country to enjoy The Samurai Blue ahead of their involvement in the Asia Cup and he’ll be a big miss throughout the coming weeks. The Blues were in behind the Saints defence one more when Rudiger’s pass was effortlessly taken down by Hazard. The Belgian’s close control allowed a powerful snapshot, only for Gunn to repel in a confidence boosting stop. Quick off his line, making himself big when necessary, the former City man was magnificent in a daunting debut and it soon became apparent why the young Englishman is so highly rated.
Saints went into the halftime break on level terms, Long brought on for Ings in a half time shuffle by Hasenhüttl. Live wire Stuart Armstrong forced Arrizabalaga into a save, a curling effort sending the Spaniard sprawling, ultimately redirecting around the post. It was then the turn of Hazard once again, a right footed effort from inside the Saints box but the impressive Gunn forced behind for a corner.
Ward-Prowse, in his more natural position of midfield, had a chance to inflict danger upon The Blues, a set piece opportunity following Rudiger’s impeding of Armstrong. Unfortunately, the free kick struck the wall, posing no problem whatsoever. Renowned for his dead ball threat, the Portsmouth raised but since cleansed man’s efforts seem to have gone off the boil of late, hopefully some extra work on the training ground will improve his effectiveness in this respect going forward. Sarri threw on Fabregas and, opting for experience and it almost immediately paid off. The midfielder expertly found Morata, who slipped past Gunn, only to be adjudged offside. Replays showed the decision to be very tight and it appeared as though, after many dubious decisions going against them, Saints were at last getting the rub of the green.
There was no doubt about Morata’s positioning in the 78th minute, set free by Loftus-Cheek but Gunn stood strong once more to deny the effort. Charlie Austin, loser of all six career appearances against Chelsea, was brought on for Armstrong, before one final scare. Alonso claimed for a penalty, adamant that he had been fouled by Long but the referee remained disinterested and moments later, blew the final whistle.
So a magnificent point for Saints, away to a Chelsea side who not long ago inflicted a first loss upon all conquering Manchester City. Go back just a few months ago and The Blues visited St. Mary’s, routinely dispatching Mark Hughes side, a 3-0 victory on the day. There was no chance of a repeat in the return fixture and the difference in terms of organisation already since Hasenhüttl’s arrival has been nothing short of remarkable. It’s so refreshing to see Saints defenders breathing down the neck off opposing players as soon as the ball is fired into them. Ralph’s also managed to ensure the side perform as a team, players covering one another in the event of lapses. One thing that came across, even from just viewing the match online, was the passion of the Austrian, who could be heard screaming encouragement to his players every time the ball reaches the near touch line. As a player, it must be so much more rewarding to play for an individual who clearly invests his heart and soul into everything he does. Hopefully, this fact will attract new players to the club, further enhancing Ralph’s ability to implement his vision.
This weekend, attention turns to a different competition, The FA Cup and a trip to Championship high flyers Derby County. Frank Lampard, in his first managerial season has his team playing a wonderfully attacking brand, plundering goals leading to a current position of 6th and just 6 points off of the automatic promotion places. Norwich, currently in one of those spots, were recently dispatched by our opposition this weekend, on home soil. Trailing 3-2, the match was stopped due to a floodlight power outage at Carrow Road but when restored, the final 10 minutes were played and Derby netted twice to seal an impressive victory. Derby’s number one focus this season will be promotion to the Premier League and therefore, there’s a strong likelihood that players will be rested for Saturday’s match. The same approach could be taken by Hasenhüttl, with Saints lying precariously in 18th position. However, the Saints boss made clear his adoration of the FA Cup, having followed the competition as a child in Austria and was even quoted as saying “The last time the Queen gave the trophy it was to Southampton. Maybe she was thinking it couldn’t get better!”. Comments such as these, as well as improving performances on the pitch will no doubt further endear himself to supporters, with the Ralpholution now in full swing.