Charlie Austin scored a brace and Jay Rodriguez tacked on a late goal as Southampton downed its first Europa League opponent by a comfortable margin.
Austin’s first came on a penalty kick just five minutes in following a handball ruling against Sparta defender Costa.
Initially called a mere foul, the play was awarded a penalty upon review with the back linesmen, who judged Costa’s elbow to be in an “unnatural” position.
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A brief discussion then followed between designated-PK man Dusan Tadic and Charlie Austin over who would take the kick. Austin prevailed in the end and put the ball past the diving Tomas Koubek to put Southampton up 1-0.
Firmly in control, Saints would create another chance off a corner, but Virgil van Dijk’s header was mis-hit and went over the bar.
Sparta would get their first attacking chance at the 12th minute, but it was unlikely hero Maya Yoshida who turned the cross away for a corner that was easily cleared. A few minutes later, Austin nearly made it 2-0 off a James Ward-Prowse free kick.
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In the 25th minute, Charlie Austin would get another beautiful chance that looked for all the world to have gone in. The linesman’s flag, however, disagreed. Not to be denied a third time, Austin struck two minutes later off a feed from Cuco Martina to make it 2-0 to Southampton.
That was the score the first half ended on, with the Saints carrying an energy into the tunnel unseen through four disappointing League games.
As the second half kicked off, Southampton continued their dominance of the match in early going. An early corner was quickly cleared, but Saints maintained control of possession and kept Sparta bottled up.
Chances would be traded back and forth throughout the second half, but Southampton’s defence was good for all challenges and continued to harry the Sparta defence with testing shots to little avail.
It looked certain to end on 2-0 until late substitute Jay Rodriguez slammed one home in stoppage time to make it 3 to Southampton and seal the victory.
Both Austin and Rodriguez’s goals represent their first in a major European tournament. For Charlie Austin, the brace were his first goals of the 2016-17 campaign.
I am happy for all the squad…it was, I think, important to build for the future. With a game every three days, it will be very important.
It’s an absolutely essential victory for Southampton, who now sit in the driver’s seat in their group after Inter Milan fell 2-0 to Hapoel Be’er Sheba at home. Fraser Forster’s first clean sheet and Southampton’s first victory this season and largest margin since 26 December 2015 will do wonders for a club whose confidence was wavering after a slow start to the domestic season.
Speaking on the result, manager Claude Puel made no secret of his pleasure with the club’s performance.
“I am happy for all the squad, because they can see many good players,” Puel told club media. “It was, I think, important to build for the future,” the French manager said, in reference to the deployment of so many second-choice players.
“With a game every three days, it will be very important.”
Southampton face Swansea on Sunday in their return to League action. Their next Europa League fixture is an away match to Hapoel Be’er Sheba on 29 September.