Saints' joy is tempered

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The Independent Online

CAN THIS really have been a relegation battle on the opening day? It is a depressing thought, but quite possibly an accurate one. The Premiership is made up now effectively of leagues within a league, the members of which can be clearly identified, and this fixture was undoubtedly from the bottom section. Coventry, 11th two seasons ago, might still see the Uefa Cup as within their range but they will have to run at a ferocious pace just to keep up with the mid-table pack.

CAN THIS really have been a relegation battle on the opening day? It is a depressing thought, but quite possibly an accurate one. The Premiership is made up now effectively of leagues within a league, the members of which can be clearly identified, and this fixture was undoubtedly from the bottom section. Coventry, 11th two seasons ago, might still see the Uefa Cup as within their range but they will have to run at a ferocious pace just to keep up with the mid-table pack.

More likely they will wind up with survival the only goal, which will almost certainly be Southampton's fate, regardless of their winning start.The Saints, last season's great escapologists, had not won an opening fixture since a 4-0 victory over West Ham kicked off 1988-89. Cue dancing girls? Not a bit of it. The detail left Dave Jones, playing a grimly pragmatic bat, entirely unmoved. "It does not really make any difference," he said, with an air of heavy realism. Oh dear. What happened to bushy-tailed early-season optimism?

"Everyone starts on an equal footing," Gordon Strachan wrote in his programme notes, knowing full well it to be tosh. But though we can laugh cynically, perhaps the keepers of the Premiership's pot of gold should ask themselves a question or two. For instance, how long will the punters keep turning up to watch teams with no chance?

The foreigners here have a key role to play, keeping the product fresh and vibrant, which is why Coventry have paid more than £5m for two pony-tailed Moroccans. They were not disappointed. Youssef Chippo and Moustapha Hadji, who came to prominence at France 98, created a buzz of excitement silenced only when Egil Ostenstad had the cheek to score the winner for Southampton five minutes from full-time. "The qualities I admire in them are the attributes I want at this club," Strachan said. "Their technical skill is of the highest level but they also work very hard for the team."

Hadji, who speaks five languages, claims he cannot yet decipher Strachan but seemed to know what was required, even so. He and his compatriot left barely a blade of grass untrodden and might have scored a goal or two each.

But only Ostenstad managed that feat. One battle won, 37 to go.

Goals: Ostenstad (85) 0-1.

Coventry City (4-4-2): Hedman; Edworthy, Williams, Shaw, Burrows; Telfer, McAllister, Chippo (Froggatt, 77), Hadji; Whelan, Huckerby (Aloisi, 70). Substitutes not used: Soltvedt, Breen, Nuzzo (gk).

Southampton (4-4-2): Jones; Dodd, Richards, Lundekvam, Benali; Le Tissier (Ripley, 85), Hughes, Marsden, Kachloul (Beresford, 89); Ostenstad, Pahars. Substitutes not used: Oakley, Almeida, Moss (gk).

Referee: P Jones (Loughborough).

Bookings: Southampton: Ostenstad, Dodd.

Man of the match: Richards.

Attendance: 19,915.

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