With nine matches down and 37 to go, Southampton are still defending their place at the top of the Championship, holding on to the possibility of automatic promotion to the Premier League by a thread. The Saints have recently dropped points and are quickly dropping in confidence, only topping the table on goal difference. Can they get back to winning ways?
After winning their first three games and scoring an impressive ten goals in the process (including five in one match), Southampton returned to St Mary’s on August 20th to make it four wins out of four against Millwall. In perhaps the most tense game of the campaign so far, the South Coast club held on for over an hour with just a single goal, courtesy of a Guly do Prado conversion in the 18th minute. The visitors piled on the pressure in the second half, but there was nothing they could do to prevent the Saints from extending their 100% start to the season to four matches, a club record.
The party was finally brought to an end the following week when Southampton travelled to face Leicester City at the King Power Stadium. Former England international star Darius Vassell opened the scoring after only two-and-a-half minutes, to immediately puncture the Saints’ hopes of a fifth straight win. Richie Wellens doubled Leicester’s tally to make a Southampton comeback even less of a possibility. But the Hampshire side are not one to give up easily, and left-back Dan Harding responded instantly to bring one back for Southampton. Being 2-1 down at half-time didn’t seem so bad, but a freak accident in stoppage time led to star striker Rickie Lambert somehow scoring an own goal to give Leicester their two-goal advantage back going into the break. Southampton came out firing, however, and then-top scorer David Connolly brought another back for the visitors in the 53rd minute to begin a period of intense Southampton dominance. Like father like son though, as Leicester goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel, son of legendary Manchester United ‘keeper Peter Schmeichel, made a string of world class saves in the last ten minutes to keep Lambert and co. from bringing another goal back.
The loss saw the Saints relinquish the top position to fellow promotees Brighton & Hove Albion, who continued their unbeaten run with a win against Peterborough United. After a two-week break owing to international fixtures, Southampton returned on September 10th to face Nottingham Forest at home. Forest striker Matt Derbyshire opened the scoring early on to mirror the start of the Leicester match, but Rickie Lambert quickly made sure to avoid repetition by levelling the score just a minute later. He scored a second, too, heading in David Connolly’s cross in the 25th minute to make it 2-1. Just before half-time Nottingham scored an equaliser to increase the pressure on the Saints, and it took until the 82nd minute for Lambert to complete his hat-trick and save Southampton once again.
Still second, the Saints made sure to play to the absolute top-end of their potential when they hosted Birmingham City the following week, a team who were relegated from the Premier League last season and are the current holders of the Carling Cup. These facts meant nothing to the hungry Southampton side though, as they picked up their best win of the season so far against arguably the hardest opponent so far. The first goal was lucky, to be fair, as Lambert was bundled in the box and was gifted a penalty in the 10th minute; and if you know Lambert at all, you’ll know that he rarely misses from 12 yards. Right-back Frazer Richardson set up the second just ten minutes later, crossing beautifully for Guly do Prado to strike home. Birmingham looked shell-shocked so early in the match, and the Championship newbies weren’t done yet: Adam Lallana made it three before the break, again from a Richardson assist. Going into half-time the Southampton team were in a confident position to win the game, and an early goal from City youngster Chris Wood wasn’t going to change that. Late in the game, Richard Chaplow scored his first of the season to put Southampton right back at the top of the league.
This return to form was brought to a premature end the next weekend, when Southampton travelled to face Burnley, a club that finished just outside the play-off places last season and are hungry for more promotion battle action. In a tense and balanced game, neither side could break the deadlock in the first 45 minutes, with the home side just taking their attacks a bit further and stifling the visitors’ attempts at moves. In the second period, the Clarets finally broke the deadlock when Charlie Austin made the most of some lackluster defensive displays from the Saints. Southampton pushed for an equaliser right up until the end of the match, and it paid off when Morgan Schneiderlin netted his first of the campaign ten minutes before time, forcefully driving a shot inside the area into the corner of the net. This point was important in the battle for first place, as it put Southampton one point above Middlesbrough.
In midweek Southampton travelled to Wales to face Cardiff City, where their luck turned even worse. In the first half of the evening match, Southampton were arguably the stronger side, setting up a number of potentially goal-scoring moves and largely outplaying the Bluebirds. The half was summarised by a plethora of wasted set-plays from the hosts, stemming from clumsy fouls on the part of the visitors. City were not happy, but it was the Saints who came out dominating early in the second half. In the end it was a long ball from the Cardiff goalkeeper all the way up to Scottish striker Kenny Miller which resulted in the breaking of the deadlock, as he headed into an unguarded net when Kelvin Davis came out to try and collect. Less than ten minutes later Miller doubled his and Cardiff’s tally, slotting cooly past Davis to take the spoils once again. The match was over at this point, and a neat goal from substitute winger Steve De Ridder was nothing more than a consolation in the end, and it took until the third minute of injury time to get it.
Southampton are still at the top of the Championship despite two losses and a draw, but another slip up is likely to cost them this position: Middlesbrough and Derby County are closing in quickly, with goal difference the only separation between the three sides now. Southampton’s next few games are at home to Watford, away at Derby, and at home to West Ham United, so the Saints are going to have to really up their game and get back on the winning track to have any hope of retaining their top-of-the-table reputation. At the moment, this writer believes that maybe this is the end of Southampton’s fun at the summit of the Championship, and perhaps now is the time to start defending a play-off position until the end of the season. That being said, there’s still a long way to go, so one must not lose faith.