Saints the Fall Guys
The wheels are in serious danger of coming off Southampton`s season as they once again failed to make their chances pay, and paid the price at Deepdale. George Burley`s side have slipped to seventh place in the Championship for the first time in 2007, and it now looks impossible for the Saints to challenge for an automatic promotion place. With the sky cameras watching at Deepdale, Southampton had begun impressively, hassling and hurrying Preston in the opening exchanges. They also created the better openings, with Belmadi just failing to beat Lonergan as he bore down on goal from the right side. Preston threatened rarely, but Baird`s back-header was intercepted by Mellor who drew a smart save from Kelvin Davis on eight minutes. Southampton, though, were coping with the difficult conditions well and a rushed Preston clearance fell to Surman on the edge of the box but Lonergan was equal to the youngster`s placed shot. The home crowd were becoming increasingly frustrated, and even more so when Pugh wasted a good chance, his header flying high and wide from Nugent`s precise cross.
Sir Alex Ferguson was an interested spectator, watching Gareth Bale in person for the first time, but the Championship`s young player of the year was having a difficult game. David Nugent had been given the task of tracking his forward runs, and this seemed to unsettle Bale who mis-hit and sliced several crosses during the first half. Southampton`s midfield of Surman, Viafara, Wright and Belmadi were still in control of the match, retaining possession and giving good service to the front pairing of Jones and Rasiak, but the chances created wouldn`t fall to Southampton`s top-scorers. Jones teed up Belmadi whose crisp half-volley once again brought Lonergan into action, and the Saints must have felt a goal was just around the corner. Viafara`s pace took him away from Davidson on the right, but the Columbian`s finish lacked composure as Lonergan closed him down. Bale clipped a free-kick narrowly over the crossbar as the away side continued to fail to take advantage of their dominance over Preston, who`s home record shows just two league losses this season. Wright and Belmadi proceeded to whip dangerous balls across the goalmouth, both of which were met by Lundekvam, but both of the skipper`s headers back across goal evaded the waiting Rasiak.
Southampton`s best chance was created in the final minute of the half; Wright slid a clever through-ball to Surman, but his finish was awkward and too close to Lonergan who thwarted Southampton once again. As if the evening hadn`t been frustrating enough already, it got much worse as Bale left Ricketts unmarked from a free-kick and he guided the ball into the six yard box where it fell kindly for Neil Mellor who poked past Davis. The mood at the stadium was instantly transformed, with the fans` aggravation replaced with delight as the sides left the field at the break.
So the sky cameras had done nothing to dispel Southampton`s habit of playing well without reward, but it was the home side who pushed on strongest from the interval; Nugent wriggling free from Baird only for his shot to be smothered by Davis. Nugent had reverted to his preferred role as a striker, with Ricketts replacing him on the right, and it was the England U21 international who drew four defenders to him before setting up Mellor again, but his shot was weak and straight at Davis. Southampton had barely made it out of their own half in the first 10 minutes of the second period, but they scrambled in an equaliser against the run of play. Wright hit a scorching shot on the volley and Lonergan could only push the ball into Rasiak`s path from 6 yards, but the Pole`s follow-up was saved by the recovering 'keeper, but finally Saints` leading scorer nodded the ball home from the second rebound. It seemed that Lady Luck had finally smiled on the away side, and the 10 minute period of Saints ascendancy that followed suggested that they might just have had enough to go on and win the match. Viafara`s clever ball through was chased down by Jones, and the Trinidadian somehow beat defender and goalkeeper to the ball, but the ball rebounded off the goalkeeper and Belmadi`s follow-up was blocked.
Next though Preston`s match-winner made his move. Paul Simpson made his tactical switch, and this was the moment that Preston North End`s night was transformed. Patrick Agyemang was introduced and tore Southampton to pieces, with the ineffective Chris Makin run ragged by the pacey striker. It is a sad fact that Southampton`s George Burley has rarely reproduced this kind of match winning alteration this season. Often clever substitutions are made, but it is impossible to recall a game that has been changed for the better with a Southampton switch. Immediately Agyemang danced through the Saints` back-line only for Davis to bravely dive at his feet. Southampton continued to plug away, but there was little creativity at this stage, and Preston caught the Saints napping with just over fifteen minutes remaining; Nugent stormed forward to collect a pass from Ricketts down the right channel, Lundekvam was turned far too easily and Nugent finished cheekily past Davis as he rushed out. Now the changes were made, but it was painfully clear to anyone watching that they were made too late, 10 minutes too late for the Saints to have any hope of winning the match. Wright-Phillips replaced the hobbling Jones and Danny Gutherie came on for his first Saints appearance. He had no time to make any difference though as Preston were gifted a third. Sedgwick played the ball across goal and Davis` touch deflected the ball into Baird who was unlucky to score an own goal.
That was effectively that, and Southampton could only look back on what should have been. But haven`t we been saying this all season, waiting for everything to 'turn good`? Ipswich away, Sheffield away, QPR home, Southend away, Derby home, WBA away and Coventry away. Points wasted, literally thrown away. Now we`re forced to watch the other promotion contenders accelerating away from us. Sunderland look irresistible, West Brom consistently excellent, Derby have the points, Birmingham the games in hand and Wolves the momentum. I am forced to ask myself, what exactly do we have? The one answer that springs to mind is performances. We are told time and time again by opposition managers what a good side we are, but this is inevitably followed by how pleased he is that his side turned us over. The playoffs are far from out of sight, and we have once again shown that we aren`t far away from giving one of these sides a good thrashing, but there is a world of difference between performances and results, and therefore points. I can only reiterate what I said after returning from Coventry. We must learn to be brutal, ruthless, clinical. This is what separates the winners from the nearly men, which is what we are threatening to be. Now it is merely a case of reaching the playoffs and putting everything into those games that would follow. I just hope the players know what they must do.