Football: Only fear of the drop flows freely

Southampton 1 Le Tissier 41 Sheffield Wednesday 0 Half-time: 1- 0 Attendance: 15,201
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The Independent Online
BOTH MANAGERS at The Dell yesterday analysed the match as lacking fluency. This sounded a candid admission but it was still flattery. The match was rarely other than dreadful.

It was an affair contested by two sides desperate not to lose and unsure how they might best go about winning. Southampton are frantically attempting, as usual, to emerge from the relegation struggle, Wednesday are scrambling to avoid becoming involved in it.

"From where I was standing it was not the best of matches to watch," said Dave Jones, the Saints manager, with understatement. "But that's what it's always going to be like and three points is three points and I don't care how we get them." To which Danny Wilson, his counterpart at the Yorkshire club, added a few moments later: "It wasn't the most free-flowing football. There was a little bit of anxiety at times."

The issue was settled by a goal from Matthew Le Tissier in the 41st minute. His method of execution, a header at the far post, was rare but perhaps not so unexpected as the cleanly hit cross by Matthew Oakley which preceded it. Few of the spectators and none of the Sheffield defenders could have been prepared for that.

With Easter approaching it is a tradition that the Saints are embroiled in a dire fight to retain their status in the top division. It may not be true that this has happened every year since they were promoted in 1978 but it certainly seems like it. Their home form is sound, their away form dreadful.The former may be tested next Saturday because they entertain Arsenal with three players suspended, including Le Tissier, who was booked for the eighth time yesterday, displaying an all too regular petulance.

That Southampton have always survived is a precedent they have clung to by way of optimism. The precedent they chose to ignore was the one that revealed their record at The Dell against Wednesday. In 14 matches between the sides on the south coast since 1979 there had not been a single home win.

Southampton, therefore, had several reasons for being the more adventurous, but this was a relative term. Wednesday were restrained to the point of rigidity. They kept their shape, as managers like to say, but this was probably because they were going nowhere.

Mark Hughes, sharing the forward responsibilities with Egil Ostenstad, gave Saints an early chance with a firm drive which forced Pavel Srnicek to arch his back in making the save. Midway through the opening half Chris Marsden found himself with space and a clear shooting chance inside the area. His shot skidded past the defenders but struck a post.

None of this was much to become excited about but compared to what Wednesday were providing it was worthy of singing and dancing on the tables. Wilson must have implored his charges to increase their momentum at the break but they responded only fitfully. Benito Carbone crossed for Andy Booth but he scuffed his shot.

Booth is out of form and looks out of his class, too. Wilson said later that he is trying to buy a striker before the transfer deadline on Thursday and it was impossible to question his judgement. There was one more clear chance for Wednesday when some rank confusion in the Southampton defence saw the ball cleared to Petter Rudi, whose snap volley grazed the top of the crossbar.

They enjoyed more possession thereafter but still lacked adventure, ambition and what the managers would have called fluency. The passing of both sides remained unsteady and, in Southampton's case, grew more edgy as the match progressed. Ostenstad might have buried two headers but his form was hardly better than that of Booth.

Southampton managed to hang on to record their sixth home win in seven matches, but they will need away points to survive. Wednesday have now lost four games on the trot. They urgently need points anywhere.