Southampton open European campaign with easy Sparta win

Date published: Thursday 15th September 2016 9:58

Charlie Austin: Double inspires Saints to win

Sparta Prague were beaten 3-0 at St Mary’s as Southampton made a comfortable start to the Europa League group stages.

A Charlie Austin double gave the Saints a two-goal lead inside the half hour mark, and a disallowed goal added to the dominance that Claude Puel’s side showed.

Austin’s first came from the penalty spot, slotting home after an argument with Tadic about who should take it; the second a header.

The visitors gave a spirited effort but ultimately were unable to match the intent and fitness of a ruthless looking Southampton side.

Jay Rodriguez added the final nail in the coffin in the second minute of injury time, sidefooting into the far corner from Shane Long’s feed.

Puel made seven changes to the team that on Saturday lost 2-1 at Arsenal, suggesting he does not consider the competition as important as he insisted when speaking on Wednesday.

He was regardless rewarded, however, with two goals from the recalled Charlie Austin and another from substitute Jay Rodriguez as he continued his comeback from a career-threatening knee injury.

Making only his second start of the season – Austin had been expected to benefit from the departure of Graziano Pelle to China’s Shandong Luneng – the striker won a fifth-minute penalty when his low right-wing cross struck unlucky Sparta defender Costa Nhamoinesu’s elbow.

A brief argument with Dusan Tadic over who would take it ensued, before he confidently struck into the bottom left corner beyond Tomas Koubek.

It was in the 26th minute when, following positive build-up play from Shane Long and Cuco Martina on the right wing, the former sent a low cross to Austin. The striker dived low to head into the back of the net, but a second goal was rightly disallowed after he strayed just offside.

Out wide and in the final third was where the hosts – owing largely to the diamond formation Puel has introduced – created the majority of their space.

Austin’s and Long’s rotation and pursuit of width consistently took them beyond Sparta’s full-backs, and created another goalscoring opportunity just two minutes after Austin’s header was ruled out.

This time Martina’s initial cross was blocked, but after he recollected possession he brilliantly sent another ball with the outside of his boot towards Austin, who from directly in front of goal calmly nodded inside the right post via Koubek’s hand.

Sparta’s greatest first-half threat came when Maya Yoshida’s poor back-pass left goalkeeper Fraser Forster under unnecessary pressure. It revealed much about why their last win in England came in 1983, at Watford.

Their manager Zdenek Scasny was still playing and scored the game’s only goal that day, and he responded to his team’s struggles at St Mary’s by introducing David Lafata for Lukas Julis at half-time.

Southampton played with less intensity thereafter – potentially inviting trouble with just a two-goal advantage – but the visitors’ threat was again minimal.

Only Lafata had tested Forster with a low shot the goalkeeper dived well to save when Southampton began another attack in stoppage time.

Substitute Rodriguez played a one-two with the classy Long, recollecting possession in front of goal in the area, and comfortably finishing towards the bottom right to secure the three points needed from what might be the easiest of their six Group K games.

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