Football: Strachan plays the lucky charm

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The Independent Online
Southampton 2

Evans 27, Ostenstad 47

Coventry City 2

Ndlovu 62, Whelan 74

Attendance: 15,251

OVER the years this fixture has provided such storming dramas as a 5-5 draw and an 8-2 win for Southampton and yesterday's will go down as another that Coventry could have lost by a deluge. Yet they saved themselves and perhaps their Premiership status through the reviving powers of the club's best player who also happens to be the manager - Gordon Strachan.

Oddly enough in this confrontation of severely threatened clubs, the dilemma for both managers was whether to change winning teams, Southampton having beaten West Ham without Matthew Le Tissier last weekend, and Coventry surprisingly having overcome Chelsea, and even more surprisingly beaten Liverpool at Anfield. It would have been a greater dilemma for Graeme Souness had Le Tissier recovered from a hamstring problem. Strachan changed his team only because he admitted that two full games in succession was too much "for my old legs". But part of the match yesterday was all that was needed.

The ingenuity of Le Tissier and Strachan from the start would have been a relief from the unrelenting tautness that perhaps inevitably caused so much of the first half to be locked in endeavour without imagination.

The thrust of that effort came entirely from Southampton for whom Jim Magilton played an inspiring role, stabilising their midfield and driving forward. Nothing in Coventry's marking suggested security and little in their forward movement endangered Southampton who rightly took the lead after 27 minutes. Again Magilton was the move maker. His ball across the penalty area seemed to have gone too far but Robbie Slater retrieved it and pulled it back for Mike Evans to chest in.

It took that jolt to raise sufficient organisation in the Coventry side to encroach on the Southampton penalty area but the Coventry revival was short-lived. Two minutes after half-time, a long kick by Maik Taylor caused the usual confusion in their penalty area. Evans' shot was blocked on the line by Brian Borrows, and Egil Ostenstad prodded the ball home.

Strachan had no choice but to take up a playing role, though it was hardly his inspiration that brought Coventry back into the game. Benali's weak back-pass was snapped up by Peter Ndlovu and he scored off the far post - his only touch of any importance to that point. "It was a gift and we felt sorry for ourselves," Souness admitted.

So absurdly Southampton suddenly found themselves conceding ground and another goal. Strachan and Gary McAllister developed a move, Dion Dublin rose to head Strachan's centre but only flicked the ball further on and Noel Whelan made better contact to beat Taylor. Without doubt Strachan's arrival had acted not only as a force for good but a lucky charm. An inspired substitution? "No," Strachan said. "A desperate one - some people needed a kick up the backside."

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