Liverpool could not accuse Southampton of giving their fellow challengers for the riches of Europe, Aston Villa, an easy passage at the St Mary's Stadium yesterday. Far from it. Southampton fought for the points as if they themselves had much more to defend than their own pride.
Villa had gone from the relegation zone in November to yesterday's continuing challenge for a place in next season's Champions' League. They had gone from confusion to such confidence that they had not lost in their previous seven matches and had reaped 10 points from a possible 12 in their most recent four away games.
However, David O'Leary had always been cautious about talk of Europe, and Liverpool's evening defeat of Birmingham cost his club the Champions' League spot. "Liverpool and Newcastle have underachieved and that brought us in," O'Leary said. "But even if we finish as the best of the rest, you have to remember some people made us favourites to go down."
Southampton began the season with their own European ambitions but by yesterday they were happy enough to have achieved solid security in domestic competition. Paul Sturrock had always intended to use the last couple of games as trials for future hopefuls but he had not anticipated that it would be forced upon him by a spate of injuries. Graeme Le Saux, Rory Delap, Jason Dodd, Marian Pahars and Michael Svensson were all absent. Yet Southampton concealed their deficiencies in the early part and Villa found themselves in almost permanent retreat.
For the home side James Beattie and Kevin Phillips received ample support, especially from Paul Telfer and Fabrice Fernandes on the right side. But Villa's counter-attacking had an element of quick thinking. Darius Vassell and Juan Pablo Angel were never slow to exploit spaces, and after half an hour Liam Ridgewell had a header well blocked by Antti Niemi.
Southampton countered themselves. Beattie hurled a huge, long drive over the bar before Phillips nimbly turned on the ball five yards out but scuffed his shot a foot wide.
Phillips made amends later, but not before referee Phil Dowd controversially gave Villa a 39th-minute penalty after Danny Higginbotham held back Ridgewell in one of those penalty-area jostles that often go unmentioned. Angel confidently beat Niemi from the spot. Southampton tore into the Villa half for the final five minutes of the first 45 and after Anders Svensson made a run across the face of goal, his pass allowed Phillips, who looked offside, a simple drive for the equaliser.
Southampton maintained the momentum after the break. Beattie turned an opportunity negligently wide and a bending 20-yarder from Svensson deserved better than to graze the post.
Southampton were denied a penalty late in the match when Yoann Folly was brought down by Ronny Johnsen. It seemed a far clearer offence than the one for which the earlier penalty was awarded, though not to the referee.
Once Vassell had been replaced by Peter Crouch and, later, Angel succumbed to a leg injury, Villa were fresh in legs but stale in imagination. The effort put into the last few weeks suddenly seemed to drain away all of their hopes.
Aston Villa 1
Angel pen 39
Half-time: 1-1 Attendance: 32,054Reuse content