A brace of second-half goals in five minutes completed a spirited comeback for Southampton against Italian giants Inter Milan and kept their target of reaching the Europa League knockout stages firmly in sight.
Claude Puel made five changes from the side that faced Chelsea at St. Mary’s last Sunday, most significantly handing Virgil Van Dijk the captains armband as Jose Fonte, along with Jordy Clasie, Charlie Austin, Ryan Bertrand and Steven Davis all took to the bench.
Southampton have enjoyed contrasting fortunes to Inter in recent seasons; a rise from the third tier of English football juxtaposed against a fall from grace as Milan have transformed from Champions League winners to an underachieving mid-table Serie A side in desperate need of a victory.
The Italian giants severed ties with manager Frank De Boer on Tuesday, leaving youth coach Steffano Vecchi to take charge of the former European powerhouse. And their insecurity was plain right from the start.
Despite enjoying the lions share of possession against a well-structured defensive Inter side in the opening exchanges, it was the Saints who fell behind just after the half-hour. A rare venture forward by the Italians resulted in captain Mauro Icardi finding himself free in the box to lash home a loose ball underneath Fraser Forster.
Saints were given a controversial opportunity to pull themselves level on the stroke of half-time, when referee Pawel Gil adjudged Pierre Hobjberg’s touch to have struck the arm of Perisic and duly awarded a penalty in front of the Northam Stand.
There was more drama to come; Sam McQueen came across to pull up Inter’s Candreva over damaging the penalty spot with his studs in the build-up to the spot kick; an elbow was raised but after a lengthy delay – and much disputing from both camps – the latter was given a yellow card and Tadic prepared to take his spot kick.
Which he missed. Samir Handanovic guessed right, and dived to his left to clear the side-footed shot at a comfortable height. The first half concluded shortly with Saints in control – but lacking that cutting edge in front of goal.
Charlie Austin was brought on after the hour mark to redress the problem, but it was captain Van Dijk who led by example, pouncing after a looped shot from Oriel Romeu hit the crossbar and landed invitingly for the Dutch international to smash home.
Saints then completed their night’s work in bizarre fashion, as a cross from Dusan Tadic bounced off the left thigh of Yuto Nagatomo and headed into the top right corner of the net, sending a crowd exceeding 30,000 inside St. Mary’s delirious.
Inter showed little fightback from there, as Saints cruised to their second home victory in succession in the tournament; a brace of wins from their final group games against Sparta Prague and Hapoel Be’er Sheva will see them head into the last 32 with aplomb.
“I am happy for all the fans and players. They saw a very good game with a good result. It is a fantastic scenario.” commented Saints boss Claude Puel.
“It was difficult at the beginning. We dominated all the game but we lost a goal and missed a penalty. But we did very good work.
“We knew how important it was to win tonight. It is a good result but we are not finished yet. We want to qualify. The work is not finished.”
“The most important thing was that it was well deserved. We played good football, we were the dominating side, like before in Milan and today we rewarded ourselves with a win.” concurred Van Dijk.
“Southampton played with a lot of intensity. We faded in the second-half in terms of how we managed the ball, but the players gave everything.” admitted Inter manager Steffano Vecchi.
“Southampton scored a couple of fortuitous goals and we lost the game. We need the rub of the green, which we are not getting.
“Some of our physical limitations came out in the second-half. When we started to tire, we needed to take the sting out of it. We dropped deeper and that can be lethal.”