Southampton moves into third place
Despite a summer of big-money signings, talk on the south coast of a European challenge was laughed off by most people.
However, Saints are dumbfounding such naysayers, with Saturday evening’s 2-0 victory over Fulham propelling them to third in the Barclays Premier League and making this a better start than they managed when finishing runners-up in 1983/84.
They will do well to match that this term, although a European push certainly looks possible after their latest impressive performance.
Mauricio Pochettino’s side dominated from the outset at St Mary’s, with Fulham failing to muster a single shot in a first-half in which headers from Rickie Lambert and Jay Rodriguez put the hosts deservedly ahead.
Only Maarten Stekelenburg’s fine form, the goal frame and bad luck prevented Saints racking up an even greater margin of victory, as they secured a sixth clean sheet of the campaign – a far cry from the 26 goals they had conceded at the same stage of last season.
It is easy to forget that only three years ago Southampton were plying their trade in the third tier, especially when Saints can win so easily without their club record signing.
Italy international Dani Osvaldo joined from Roma for nearly £15million in the summer, but was unable to feature against Fulham due to a minor nerve issue.
His absence saw Lambert return to the starting line-up as one of two changes from the side that held Manchester United to a 1-1 draw last weekend.
Adam Lallana scored the equaliser at Old Trafford and was almost involved in another goal after five minutes on the south coast.
The Saints captain dispossessed dawdling Philippe Senderos and went onto test Stekelenburg, whose parry would have been slotted home by Morgan Schneiderlin was it not for Fernando Amorebieta’s clearance off the line.
Lambert fired a tame effort straight at Stekelenburg as Saints’ fine start continued, before Senderos reacted quickly to stop the England international putting Rodriguez through on goal.
Victor Wanyama flashed a left-footed 30-yard strike just wide as Pochettino’s side continued to threaten an opener that arrived in the 20th minute.
James Ward-Prowse’s corner from the right was flicked on by Rodriguez, with Lambert rising at the far post to powerfully head home.
Fulham had Stekelenburg to thank for stopping Southampton doubling their advantage just two minutes later.
Epitomizing the confidence coursing through the hosts’ veins, Rodriguez surged forwards, put the ball through Senderos’ legs, only to see his strike tipped around the post by the Holland international.
Rodriguez nodded wide as Martin Jol’s side continued to struggle, with Lambert hitting the post with a right-footed drive as Saints continued in the ascendancy.
Stekelenburg was soon back in action when Ward-Prowse sent a deep cross to the back post, where Lambert drifted in unmarked to force the Whites goalkeeper into a fine save, with Sascha Riether deflecting Luke Shaw’s follow-up into the side-netting.
Saints would not be denied for long, though.
Another deep cross, this time from Lallana, found Lambert, whose looping header back across the goal was nodded home by Rodriguez.
It was one of 14 shots Southampton managed in a dominant first half, with play continuing in the same direction after the restart for which Aaron Hughes replaced Riether.
Wanyama headed wide and Dejan Lovren poked just off-target from a corner as Saints searched for a third.
Rodriguez came close to getting it in the most stunning fashion in the 69th minute, meeting a Ward-Prowse cross with an exquisite scissor-kick that whistled just wide.
Steve Sidwell attempted his own acrobatic effort as the clock wound down and, although it was wayward, it was their first and only shot of the match.