Claridge pushes falling Saints

Southampton 2 Ostenstad 32, Van Gobbel 48 Leicester City 2 Heskey 46, Claridge 70 Attendance: 15,044

AN INABILITY to hold on to a lead has been a failing of Southampton's all season, and it surfaced again yesterday when they twice allowed Leicester back into a game they desperately needed to win to ease the pressure at the foot of the Premiership table.

Southampton never exactly looked comfortable on an afternoon of largely forgettable football, but at 2-1 up with 20 minutes left three points were there to be secured. But when Leicester's Neil Lennon broke to the by- line, the Southampton defence dithered, and from his cross the ball bobbled in off Steve Claridge.

The name on the Southampton team-sheet everyone was waiting to hear confirmed was that of Matt Le Tissier, whose absence from the midweek trip to Chelsea had been the source of a dispute between his club and national managers. Which of Graeme Souness and Glenn Hoddle had the stronger claim to the moral high ground in the matter of Le Tissier's fitness was presumably of less concern to the majority in The Dell than the fact that their star player was back when they needed him most.

Southampton have regularly been down among the strugglers come the end of recent seasons, but having dropped into bottom place after the Chelsea defeat they were asking even more of themselves than usual. From the comparative safety of just below mid-table, Leicester could afford to take a more relaxed view. This was their last match before the Coca-Cola Cup final in a fortnight's time against Middlesbrough. How much would they want to know about it?

Certainly it was Southampton who made most of the early running. The trouble was, there wasn't much passing to go with it. Possession was repeatedly squandered by both sides, and for half an hour neither goalkeeper was significantly involved. Everything was a midfield muddle, the haphazard nature of proceedings summed up when Garry Parker brought down his own man, Steve Claridge, in the Southampton box.

The crowd grew impatient. "Have a shot," they chorused. Within a minute, the message got through and Egil Ostenstad brought out a diving save from Kevin Poole, the goalkeeper drafted in to replace Kasey Keller who was on World Cup duty. Another minute later, Eyal Berkovic crossed from the left and Ostenstad met it with a crisp drive that sped past Poole.

The goal marked an improvement in quality. Southampton were moving forward with greater understanding, and in Berkovic they had a player who had always risen above the general standard and was now dictating much of the play.

A minute into the second half, however, Leicester were level. No goal of the season this, just a series of six-yard-box ricochets following a corner by Parker, the last of which saw the ball bounce in off Emile Heskey.

Southampton had paid the price for some inept defending, only for Leicester to match it three minutes later. When Le Tissier's corner swung over there was barely a challenge to Alan Neilsen as he rose to head the ball down, and none at all to Van Gobbel before he prodded his side back into the lead with his first goal in the Premiership.

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