Football: Saints shredded by Sutton

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Southampton. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 0

Norwich City. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .1

Sutton 44

Attendance: 16,556

WITH three points safely stashed away from their last two games Southampton faced their illustrious visitors with an air of renewed confidence. But the longer the game went on, its gradual erosion became more and more evident.

The Saints' early efforts to play rather than kick themselves free of the danger of relegation lasted for an hour, until Francis Benali was sent off for elbowing Ruel Fox. They had already taken one on the chin themselves when Chris Sutton's spectacular angled volley flew past the helpless Dave Beasant in the home goal almost on the stroke of half-time. Benali's dismissal merely put an end to any thoughts of comebacks and salvaging of points.

Norwich's known proclivity for letting opponents come at them so that they will be all the more vulnerable to a break was taken to extremes in the first half. Until Sutton's 44th- minute strike, Beasant had long periods of relative leisure.

The second half, especially after Benali was shown the red card, was another matter. The visitors let their skills flow and the main reason for the narrowness of the winning margin was profligacy in front of goal. Time after time Ian Crook, Sutton and Gary Megson shredded the reorganised home defence but lacked the killer instinct.

The responsibility thrust on Matthew Le Tissier, which had paid dividends over Christmas, turned into a burden here. A running war of words with the referee during the Benali sending-off was not exactly leading by example and the Saints' most gifted player rarely provided the spark such a struggling team requires from him.

'One of the best teams in Europe,' was how the Southampton manager, Ian Branfoot, summed up his opponents, adding special praise for Sutton's goal. 'A great goal - the kind of goal Alan Shearer gets.' The irony of having to recall memories of the Blackburn striker's apprenticeship under him at The Dell only underlined the paucity of the material Branfoot currently has to hand.

After the game the referee, Graham Poll, issued a statement that Benali had been sent off for 'violent conduct'. We must take heart from an official prepared to give the elbow to this fashionable tactic.