A first Premier League goal from Southampton's record signing Soufiane Boufal gave the side only their second win in seven league matches and could prove even more timely after news that Charlie Austin could be absent for up to four months.
Austin, Saints' top scorer with nine goals, dislocated his right shoulder during the first half of Thursday's exit from the Europa League in a 1-1 draw with Hapoel Be'er Sheva, and may require an operation. "Normally that means surgery and between three and four months,” Claude Puel, the Saints manager, said. "Of course it's difficult to play without Charlie because he has scored a lot of goals for us. We will have to look to other players, such as Jay Rodriguez. It's important all the players take up the challenge of being without Charlie."
In the circumstances, Boufal, nominally an attacking midfield player, whose own debut for Southampton was delayed by a knee injury following his £16m transfer from Lille in August, can expect to be asked to weigh in with more goals, as can Rodriguez, who started yesterday, Nathan Redmond and Shane Long.
Boufal began the game on the left of midfield but the Moroccan was switched to a more central role in the second half and rewarded Puel with a stinging 22-yard shot after 53 minutes. “A very good result,” Puel said. “It's difficult to come back after a big disappointment but we had good spirit. It was a fantastic goal. It was difficult for [Boufal] in the first half but he has fantastic quality and he can make the difference.”
It was only Boro's second away defeat of the season and followed draws at Arsenal, Manchester City and Leicester. But they deserved nothing for an unambitios display that leaves them in sole possession of the title of the division's lowest scorers – a title they had previously shared with Saints.
Aitor Karanka, the Boro manager, seemed strangely content with their limp, passive performance. Jordan Rhodes, standing in for the injured Alvaro Negredo, had an early chance blocked by the feet of Fraser Forster, and their only other chance was the result of a bad backpass from James Ward-Prowse, which sent Denmark winger Viktor Fischer through. Virgil Van Dijk managed to delay the Boro man's shot, but he eventully fired at goal only for Jose Fonte to block at the near post. The replay fell to Cristhian Stuani, whose first effort was charged down by Sam McQueen. His second was way over the bar.
Nathan Redmond replaced Dusan Tadic for Southampton at half-time and almost immediately he provided an opening for Boufal, whose volley was blocked. But there was no stopping his next shot as he took a pass from Ward-Prowse and swerved the ball between Valdes and his near post from 22 yards.
Surely Boro had to look for a reply, but the desperate search for an equaliser that might have been expected from the Teessiders never materialised.
Saints, though, were given fresh energy by their goal. Rodriguez was on target eight minutes from time with a header from a corner but Adam Clayton nodded the ball off the goalline. Even in stoppage time, it was Saints showing more ambition and not even Rodriguez will know how he managed to scoop Redmond's low cross-shot over the bar from barely two yards out.
“The key was the start of the second half,” Karanka said. “We finished the first half really confident and I told them had to keep it going but they started better than us. I'm pleased with the attitude of the players. We worked and fought at a good intensity.”
Southampton (4-2-3-1): Forster; Martina, Fonte, Van Dijk, McQueen; Clasie (Long 84), Romeu; Tadic (Redmond ht), Ward-Prowse, Boufal (Davis 73); Rodriguez.
Substitutes: Taylor, Yoshida, Long, Reed, Bertrand.
Middlesbrough (4-2-3-1): Valdes; Barragan Chambers, Gibson, Fabio; Clayton, De Roon; Stuani (Traore 81), Forshaw, Fischer; Rhodes.
Substitutes: Guzan, Espinosa, Leadbitter, Downing, Nsue, Nugent.
Referee: S Attwell.
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