Football: Saints prove all too demure

Derby County 0 Southampton 0
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DERBY'S SPACIOUS new stadium and respectable position in the Premiership afforded Southampton a enticing glimpse of their own potential development. But whatever the long term may have in store for the Saints, the immediate future is certain to be fretful. For if this was a side striving to win, as their manager claimed, one would hate to see them digging in for draw.

When, on the final whistle, Dave Jones' players went over to their supporters to thrust clenched fists into the air, it was the nearest they came to mustering any punch. Results elsewhere may have encouraged Southampton to believe survival is within reach, yet their relief at securing a rare away point overlooked the fact that they passed up a precious opportunity to collect all three.

Not only had Derby's morale been dented by a walloping at West Ham, but they no longer had the incentive of a Uefa Cup place. Their first-half display was strictly end-of-season stuff, yet a Southampton team lacking the injured Matthew Le Tissier were either unable or unwilling to take advantage. In the end it took Neil Moss' defiant goalkeeping and wayward shooting to spare them a seventh successive away defeat.

"We came here to try to win the game," said Jones after a barren bore that no broadcasting motormouth could have talked up, "but we've got to be happy with a clean sheet and a point." Which unwittingly encapsulated Southampton's problem: so accustomed are they to providing easy pickings on their travels that they settled too readily for parity.

Since they must have been aware at half-time that Blackburn and Charlton were likely to lose, and given that their goal difference effectively puts them a point down, it seemed a strangely negative strategy. As Jim Smith, the Derby manager, put it: "I thought they would come at us more and be really positive."

The alternative explanation for Southampton's failure to put only one shot on target, despite using four strikers, is equally unpalatable. Put bluntly, they do not possess the requisite quality. The dearth of creativity was such that Mark Hughes was arguably their most influential contributor in the unfamiliar role of midfield scrapper.

Jones had suggested beforehand that they needed to win three of their last four fixtures. By an ironic twist, the ground they are so anxious to vacate now holds the best hope of their prolonging a 21-year tenure in the top flight. While the cramped confines and intimate atmosphere of The Dell may not exactly intimidate Leicester and Everton, the record since Christmas shows that they inspire Southampton.

Even if they were to emerge victorious from both matches, they will probably also need to take something from Wimbledon. Southampton may be second only to Coventry in their dogged refusal to obey football's law of gravity - as the match programme uncharitably pointed out, they are the only club Alan Ball has saved from relegation as a manager - but it could take championship form to extend the sequence.

Derby, by comparison, are a model of can-do ownership and canny management. In Dean Sturridge and Paulo Wanchope - who was oddly out of sorts on Saturday - they may also have the mobility up front to trouble Arsenal on the break at Highbury next Sunday. On this occasion, when the onus was on them to break down a deep-lying, packed defence, they were bereft of the guile normally supplied by Francesco Baiano.

Their followers left as disappointed as Southampton's were delighted. But if, on reflection, the visiting contingent would have gladly swapped places, it would be status rather than stadiums they had in mind.

Derby County (3-4-1-2): Poom; Prior, Carbonari, Laursen; Eranio, Bohinen, Powell, Schnoor (Sturridge, 71); Beck (Delap, h-t); Burton (Harper, 83), Wanchope. Substitutes not used: Murray, Knight (gk).

Southampton (3-4-1-2): Moss; Hiley, Monkou, Dodd; Benali, Oakley (Beresford, 64), Hughes, Marsden; Kachloul (Ostenstad, 75); Beattie, Pahars (Hirst, 84). Substitutes not used: Colleter, Stensgaard (gk).

Referee: A Wilkie (Chester-le-Street).

Bookings: Derby: Prior, Burton, Delap. Southampton: Beattie, Pahars.

Man of the match: Moss.

Attendance: 26,557.