Football: Beattie's beauty bathes Saints in sunshine

Southampton 2 (Marsden 36, Beattie 74: Leicester City 1 (Marshall 17) Half-time: 1-1 Attendance: 15,228
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LAUGHING LAST and longest may, once again, become Southampton's prerogative over the next fortnight. They are not safe yet; but, courtesy of a delightful late strike by James Beattie and a favourable result from the Valley, they established themselves as third favourites to fill one of the two remaining relegation places. It is the first time this season they have been out of the drop-zone.

It seemed Southampton had hit the jackpot when a thousand hysterical shrieks of "He's starting" greeted the inclusion of Matthew Le Tissier. Salvation, for one fleeting moment in the dreams of the Dell, turned into a probability. The puncture in their lifeboat was patched up; now they must stay afloat.

Further joy was derived from the fitness of their Moroccan marauder, Hassan Kachloul, whose energising influence, it had been widely assumed, was to be lost to a shoulder ailment.

Nor ought Leicester's visit have chilled the sun-baked south coast optimism. City had not won here for more than 30 years and, from their luxurious mid-table berth, this blue-skied afternoon would surely act only as an acclimatisation period for the summer break, which lies so invitingly close.

Except that the manager Martin O'Neill has no concept of the comfort zone. He was intent on lengthening Leicester's eight-match unbeaten run - their longest such sequence in the Premiership. O'Neill named an unchanged side, including Matt Elliott, who had been unfit for Scotland's trip to Germany, and Emile Heskey, the paint still drying on his full international decoration in midweek.

Though typically pumped up, Leicester were at liberty to play a far less worried brand of football than their hosts, whose very visible nervousness was evident by a series of defensive mishaps.

Their goalkeeper, Neil Moss, miscued a regulation punch, the full-back Francis Benali was like a frightened rabbit in Heskey's headlights, and Ian Marshall's uncomplicated approach was still too complex. And it was with a typically straightforward header, in the 18th minute, that Marshall gave Leicester a predictable lead. Neil Lennon lifted in the cross, from which he of the half-mast socks steered in his third goal in as many games.

At once, as if to prove that they were not entirely impotent, Southampton - in the person of Le Tissier - threatened a response. His 40-yarder, however, was turned over by the Leicester goalkeeper Kasey Keller, who then produced a strong-wristed block from Marian Pahars.

Though still uncertain at the back, the Saints were thereby encouraged that an equaliser was within their compass and it came, eight minutes before the interval, as Chris Marsden rose to Jason Dodd's cross and pummelled a header past Keller.

Le Tissier, who had improved the spectacle without really making an impact, retired to the bench early in the second half. Though considerably less gritty than pretty, he remained, as ever, both fun and frustrating to behold. One special moment could still keep his club up. One sublime touch had afforded Kachloul a sight at goal. It came to nought, as did one which fell to Pahars who, for the second time in the match, was thwarted by Moss at his near post.

Suddenly it was Southampton who asked all the questions. Out of their early, frightened shapelessness had risen a fearless discipline. Defensively, they had shifted from the first half's sandy foundations on to industrial strength concrete. Up front, Beattie became a visible target; Kachloul, Marsden and Pahars sought and found him in turn and, as the game entered its final quarter, the Southampton manager Dave Jones sent on Egil Ostenstad to join him.

No surprise, then, when Southampton went ahead. Benali floated a free- kick from near the halfway line and Beattie, defying an improbably tight angle, cushioned a sublime volley into an apparently inaccessible corner of the net.

It was the kind of goal on which Le Tissier has built his career and the master was sufficiently enthused to leap from the bench and applaud. After his first England Under-21 goal on Wednesday in a Budapest downpour, Beattie responded in equally vibrant manner to the Hampshire sunshine.