Southampton vs Midtjylland match report: Jay Rodriguez on the way back but Saints' Europa League journey in doubt

Southampton 1 Midtjylland 1: Striker scores on just his second game since his long knee injury lay-off

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The Independent Football

When Southampton go to Denmark next week, to the 11,800-seat MCH Arena in Herning, they will have to put in everything they have to come home with a ticket to the Europa League group stage. After a tight, tiring draw here this play-off tie is balanced against Ronald Koeman’s side and in favour of the resourceful Danish team, who gave them a tremendous game here.

Southampton were outplayed in the first half and even their second-half surge, such as it was, brought them only an equaliser. The fans certainly want them to stay in this competition, but Saints now need a win or a high-scoring draw next Thursday, which will require them to play better than this.

The early evidence, in the numbers and noise in the stands, was that there is enthusiasm in Southampton for the Europa League. Of course, it could impact on their Premier League form – they have taken one point from two games so far – but it is certainly better than spending midweek nights in front of the television.

There is also the fact that some of these Southampton players need more games, to ease their way into the season’s rhythms. Oriol Romeu made his full debut while Jay Rodriguez started just his second game since his long knee injury lay-off. Rodriguez missed Saints’ best first-half chance, six minutes in, after which it became an evening to challenge that early  optimism.

Midtjylland are Brentford’s sister club and famously make use of analytics at all levels of the club. They came to St Mary’s with an efficient, robust playing style, which Southampton found it strikingly difficult to overcome. They held a good shape, kept possession and tried to make the most of their opportunities, which may not sound like much, but was more than Vitesse Arnhem managed here in the third qualifying round.

Kian Hansen’s long throws always caused problems, and Maarten Stekelenburg had to dive to deny Erik Sviatchenko when he nearly nodded in a rebound.

Southampton almost made it to half-time but switched off in the final minute. Midtjylland midfielder Tim Sparv picked up the ball in empty space 20 yards from goal before arrowing a shot into the far bottom corner of the net. The Danish side are statistical recruiters and they found Sparv – signed from Greuther Fürt – despite his obvious presence on Saints’ radars: he was part of their 2005 FA Youth Cup finalists, with Theo Walcott and Gareth Bale. Some things evade even Southampton.

Saints started the second half as if they knew their European adventure tickets were under threat and ran at Midtjylland with more vigour than before. Steven Caulker had a goal disallowed for climbing on his marker in the box, perhaps unfairly, while Graziano Pellè’s far-post header forced a save from Johan Dahlin.

Pellè’s next move was to nod down a long ball, which James Ward-Prowse collected, and when he was tripped by Hansen, Saints were awarded a penalty. Rodriguez converted – his first goal in 17 months – and Southampton were back in the game, with momentum on their side.

Caulker was then denied again, not by the referee but by Dahlin, when he thundered a header towards goal from Ward-Prowse’s free-kick.

Their best late chance came when Matt Targett hooked a shot wide from close range but beyond that there were only scraps. Pellè slipped when through on goal, Ward-Prowse put a free-kick wide and, although Maya Yoshida hit the post, the late introductions of Shane Long and Juanmi did not decisively turn the game, and the tie, Saints’ way.

Man of the match Pelle.

Match rating 4/10.

Referee C Turpin (Fr).

Attendance 28,890.