Europa League Away Sparta Prague Lost 1 – 0
We knew what to expect from the team selection in far-off Prague: fans who had expended time and money (very willingly, it must be admitted) would have sent out a stronger XI, but Sparta were weakened by problems forced upon them by injury and suspension, and anyway the game between the sides at St. Mary’s had indicated that the Premier League team’s class would surely prevail. So it seemed in the opening minutes, with a determined Long freeing Clasie who immediately moved the ball on to Rodriguez; sadly a heavy first touch meant the opportunity was gone… and, as we now know, the game was gone too. An unthreatening Sparta free kick on eleven minutes cleverly freed full back Costa on the left, and he got over his astonishment at being unmarked to force the ball past Forster. Defenders were left pointing at each other but the consensus in the stands was that the team’s nightmare-man, Martina, needed to have been more alert. Even that set-back shouldn’t have mattered, and certainly Saints had enough of the ball to have been able to turn the game around. But, oh dear, progress was so, so pedestrian with half a dozen passes apparently doing the job of one – and as it turned out, this had been Southampton’s better half. Injury forced Højbjerg out of the game, replaced by Romeu, but this didn’t seem to matter as Højbjerg had looked to be responsible for a lot of the crab-like progress. He did seem to be missed, though, as Sparta forced more saves from Forster than Saints managed against Koubek at the other end. Boufal came on for the match-raw Rodriguez at the same time, but the Moroccan doesn’t seem to be worth 20 million Czech Crowns (about £625,000) at the moment, never mind the €20m we reportedly paid. Finally Austin replaced Clasie, and as he had been our best player, that suggests panic was setting in on the bench as well as behind the safety net that marred the away fans’ view. We did see Van Dijk’s customary European miss from a set piece, and by the end the atmosphere in the Southampton section was turning toxic. After a hugely frustrating 90 minutes, the team were to leave the pitch to a chorus of boos that I felt were being directed more at our negative tactics than a lack of effort. From what has been said by those who took part in the gesture, that may only be partially correct, but if anything I think the players could have been trying too hard, rather than doing what comes naturally. Those misleading match stats show 70% Southampton possession which produced a healthy 12 shots, three on target. That’s not a fair reflection, though, as most of those were speculative efforts that failed to trouble Koubek, while Sparta’s six shots included four on target, and, of course, one goal.
LSSC Man of the Match: Jordi Clasie. Well I reckoned so anyway, even if he was substituted and has since admitted some responsibility for the goal – generously considering Martina’s and Ward-Prowse’s part in it, I think.