There may be a time far deeper into this season when the long haul of the Europa League’s parallel calendar cuts into Southampton’s legs and their enthusiasm. But we are still only in July and here, the European debut for this Southampton generation, was as much as fun as anyone could have hoped for.
Southampton won their first game of their epic journey – this third qualifying round first leg – at home against Vitesse Arnhem. The 3-0 score-line, a fair representation of the superiority of their play, should ease their way into August’s play-off round, even though Ronald Koeman was quick to insist afterwards that “it is never over in football” and that they cannot take their trip to the Netherlands easily.
That game is just three days before Saints start their Premier League campaign at St James’ Park and there is no doubt that, over the course of the season, this competition will damage their domestic form. But that is the cost of the Europa League and Southampton are not naïve enough to think otherwise.
This evening, though, was everything Southampton would have wanted when they qualified for Europe for the first time in a generation. This was a sunny, noisy sell-out, the ground full of fans delighted that they do not have to wait another few weeks to see their heroes play. The city centre was full of fans, in red and white and black and yellow, demonstrating that nothing enriches civic life in Europe like two well-behaved sets of football supporters.
The visiting fans were ferocious, singing in English and Dutch, and taking over the Southampton Solent University campus a few hours before kick-off. Their enthusiasm was certainly reflected in their players, who played enterprisingly even if they never looked like winning. Two English loannees from Chelsea, Lewis Baker and Izzy Brown, started, giving them far better experience than they would get playing for their parent club’s Under-21s.
But Southampton were far superior to Vitesse, quicker, stronger and sharper throughout. Sadio Mane was allowed to float in behind Graziano Pelle and Vitesse never had an answer to his imagination or skill. Koeman said he was “outstanding”.
Mane set the tone from the start, winning an early corner from which Maya Yoshida might have scored before having his own shot blocked soon later. Mane, of course, set up the opening goal, touching a delightful reverse pass through to Pelle’s diagonal run. The big Italian hammered the ball right-footed first time into the top corner of the goal.
Mane, entitled to do almost entirely as he pleased, was Southampton’s most dangerous player, and he made their second goal just before the break. Mane spun away from Valeri Kazaishvili in the box and when Rochi Achenteh tried to stop him, all he could offer was an ugly barge. There will not be a clearer penalty all season. Tadic rolled the ball in left-footed. Southampton were 2-0 up at the break and deservedly so.
With that 2-0 lead, Saints sat back at the start of the second half, to the exasperation of their manager. “I wasn’t happy with the second half, too much defending,” Koeman said afterwards. “It was lucky they made a mistake and we scored a third one.”
Saints’ rhythm was hit when Jordy Clasie limped off with a hamstring tightness which will be assessed on Friday. Koeman admitted that it may well rule him out of the return leg in Holland. The away goal risk still lingered over Saints, and, as Koeman said, they were fortunate that when substitute Milot Rashica span in behind, he could only shoot straight at Maarten Stekelenburg.
2-1 would have been one thing but 3-0, in the end, was quite another. Juanmi and Long came on, and Koeman switched to a 4-2-4 designed to kill the tie before it left Hampshire. Long took advantage of Baker’s error ran through on goal only to be blocked by the keeper. Juanmi followed in and was forced wide. Rather than hurrying a shot, he paused, looked up and floated a perfect cross back in where Long bounded forward and headed into the empty net.
It was a lively cameo from Juanmi, the fourth of four Southampton debutants. The best of them was nimble right-back Cedric Soares, who was quick and incisive enough to dampen any sadness at the departure of Nathaniel Clyne. This is a forward-looking club, and they have other things to think about.
Southampton (4-4-2): Stekelenburg; Cedric, Fonte, Yoshida, Targett; Tadic (Long, 63), Wanyama, Clasie (Juanmi, 62), Davis; Pelle, Mané (Reed, 86). Substitutes not used Martina; Ward-Prowse; Gazzaniga; McCarthy.
Vitesse (4-1-4-1): Room; Diks, Kashia, Leerdam, Achenteh; Baker; Brown, Nakamba, Kazaishvili (Pantic, 67), Oliynyk; Djurdevic (Rashica, 61). Substitutes not used Van der Werff; Dauda; Velthuizen; Osman; Lelieveld.
Referee J Gil Manzano (Spain).Reuse content