Europa League Home Sparta Prague Won 3 – 0
At last the Europa League group stage has arrived, but it wasn’t a very recognisable Saints team that faced Sparta Prague, with seven changes from Saturday’s starting line-up. This annoys me and I suspect it annoys most of you; notwithstanding the Leicester miracle, we can’t have realistic ambitions of the Champions League, so is the only point of competing in the Premier League to ensure you remain there for the next season, and so treat Europa as an unwelcome distraction? As it was, black thoughts were banished in the opening minutes when Nhamoinesu blocked Austin’s cross with his arms. Only Austin, hopefully, and Højbjerg, imploringly, looked interested in a penalty, but just when it seemed only a corner would result, the referee pointed to the spot, presumably after advice from his many assistants. What happened next was not pretty as Austin and Tadic got involved in a tug of war with the ball in the middle. It took acting captain Van Dijk to end the playground spat, but he sided with school bully Austin; my first reaction was that surely this should have been sorted beforehand, but to be fair to M. Puel, he probably thought he was dealing with grown ups and didn’t have to make it clear that Tadic is the man. Anyway, the fringe player converted, and to be fair to him, it was a good kick… but not a pleasant moment. Van Dijk headed over from a corner, although it was obvious that Sparta’s defence would give us other opportunities, and as luck would have it, they came the way of Austin who was in no mood for missing. He next had the ball in the net from a Martina cross but was marginally offside – a matter of little consequence as the adventurous Martina got forward again and a second-effort cross allowed Austin to score legally. You need a cushion with Yoshida in the side, and sure enough an ill-advised backpass gave Sparta a way back in, but Forster came to the rescue. The visitors may have adopted a dodgy selection policy of their own as star striker Lafata had to make his one notable contribution from off the bench, but again Forster was alert enough to deny him. It was the sort of game when a goal may have given fairly hapless visitors new belief, but Saints had strength in depth on their own bench and substitutes Davis and Rodriguez combined with Long for an added time goal swept in by Jay Rod to send Saints to the top of their group.
LSSC Man of the Match: Cuco Martina. A rare opportunity for him, but he looked eager to make the most of it.