Football: Saints enjoy a rare opening

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The Independent Online
Coventry City 0

Southampton 1

Ostenstad 85

Half-time: 0-0 Attendance: 19,915

IN PAST times, when the Championship was a prize to which 22 clubs aspired rather than three or four, relegation was a subject not to be discussed until Christmas and only then if straits were dire. Nowadays it is already in some thoughts. David Jones would not care to admit it but here was a result, a first opening-day victory for 11 years, that might keep the Saints in the Premiership.

It means they need only win once more away from home to equal their tally for last season. "Okay, the first priority was to keep your shape and keep a clean sheet," the Southampton manager said. "But we have the kind of players, with a bit of pace, who are capable of getting you something."

The one who did was Egil Ostenstad, who might not have started had James Beattie been fit. Five minutes from time, after Coventry had exhausted themselves trying to live up to inflated expectations, Matt Le Tissier emerged from a passive afternoon to supply a pinpoint through pass and Ostenstad, for once without Paul Williams at his side, slid the ball past Magnus Hedman.

"It was disappointment because we did everything well except where it mattered," Gordon Strachan, the Coventry manager reflected. The criticism could be levelled across the board among his side's attacking players, even their Moroccan double act, Mustapha Hadji and Youssef Chippo.

From the first whistle, all eyes were on Hadji, who appeared to regard it as his mission to cover every pristine blade of Highfield Road grass. He had taken a pot from 25 yards and smartly won a corner before five minutes had elapsed although it was Chippo who went closest to prompting the first goalflash, prompting a fine stop from Paul Jones. Hadji followed up but his attempt was also blocked. The way to goal opened up again for Hadji after 28 minutes but he sidefooted the ball into the seats.

But Southampton maintained their composure impressively and by half- time could check back over as many opportunities of their own. Marians Pahars skipped around dangerously and Hassan Kachloul almost headed them in front shortly before half-time. Earlier, Magnus Hedman had pulled off an excellent save to deny Chris Marsden.

Paul Jones made another impressive save when Marc Edworthy shot from 30 yards five minutes into the second half but, by the last quarter, Coventry were wondering quite how Southampton's rearguard, bolstered by the addition of Dean Richards, could be breached.

Hadji seemed poised to pull it off when a break from defence launched a surging run but Southampton's Jason Dodd kept pace superbly. Then, after Mark Hughes had almost beaten Hedman with a swerving strike, came the coup de grace. Le Tissier, previously quiet, sent Ostenstad clear and the Norwegian nervelessly slid the ball home.