Southampton 0 West Bromwich 0: Physical test reduces the Saints to hurly-Burley

Wright-Phillips shines against guileless Albion
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The Independent Online

From the Southampton chairman Michael Wilde down, there were dire warnings in the programme about the potency of West Bromwich and the threat they posed to the Saints' promotion hopes. To borrow from the Australian, no worries, mate.

Southampton matched the visitors in every department, except physicality, and the absence of goals in a hard-fought match will not dim the manager George Burley's ambitions of a good season. Having seen Kelvin Davis repel a John Hartson header in the opening minute, Southampton gradually seized control of midfield and the ascendancy they had achieved just before the interval was emphasised in a second half which they came close to dominating.

After that early effort, Hartson's only other threatening moment was a flying boot into Alexander Ostlund's chest, the first of three quickfire first-half bookings as tempers frayed. Hartson's effectiveness was not helped by the early departure of Nathan Ellington with hamstring problems. His stand-in was the midfielder Zoltan Gera, a spectator until a late overhead effort brought squeals of apprehension from home fans as the kick flashed across the front of Davis's goal.

So it was no surprise to hear the Albion manager Bryan Robson say afterwards: "I need to make sure I get a couple of strikers in before the deadline." He had, he added, "a couple of irons in the fire." No names, though.

Despite Robson's claims of happiness with his defence's performance, the pacy Bradley Wright-Phillips, difficult to dislodge when in possession, and the enterprising Grzegorz Rasiak caused Chris Perry and Curtis Davies plenty of problems. With Premiership vultures circling, Robson has made the 21-year-old Davies club captain to reinforce his faith in him. In this match, he was usually too overworked to appreciate the honour.

Darren Carter, who came on for Ellington, produced Albion's best moment with his first touch, a free-kick which dipped just too late. After that, there was nothing from them as Southampton took charge. With two efforts in the space of a minute, one turned aside for a corner by Albion's Swiss international goalkeeper Pascal Zuberbühler and the second a foot wide of the post, the 21-year-old Wright-Phillips emphasised his pedigree and his bargain status at £750,000 from Manchester City.

Perhaps their clearest chance just before half-time fell to Rasiak when Paul Robinson missed Gareth Bale's cross, but the Pole shot straight into Zuberbühler's arms. Straight after the interval, flicked clear by Wright-Phillips, Rasiak again directed his shot too close to the goalkeeper.

From there on it was a tale of Southampton clocking up, and missing, the openings. Ostlund's cross-shot flew just past a post, John Viafara collected a rebound and hammered it wide, and Wright-Phillips missed the far post by inches after neat control on the turn inside the penalty box. Finally, it was the turn of Gareth Bale, the 17-year-old left-back, of whose free-kicks Southampton think highly. The reason for this was evident when he took one 20 yards out, curled it low around the outside of the wall and saw the effort come back off the base of a post.

Though that was as close at Southampton came to breaching the Baggies, Burley saw reasons to be cheerful about the upcoming season. Acknowledging it had been "a battle", he stressed that some of his side were tired after playing three games in six days.

"We are not anywhere near our best at the moment," he said. "But we will keep working hard to challenge West Brom." It would also help, with the excellent squad that he has assembled, if he stopped talking up the opposition's chances.

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