BIRMINGHAM and Saints – two clubs with Premier League pedigree, both desperate for a quick return to the top flight.
On the evidence of yesterday’s clash at St Mary’s, though, only one side looks to have any hope of making such a transition right now.
Early days it may be, but Saints’ return to the summit of the Championship – thanks to this 4-1 mauling of the Blues – further strengthens the argument
that many pre-season predictions were, in fact, wild miscalculations.
Seven matches in, Nigel Adkins’ side have six wins and, once again, stare down at the rest of the division.
As the saying goes, it might be lonely at the top, but it’s got the best view.
For only so long can this majestic run of form be put purely down to the momentum carried over from last season.
Should it continue, Saints will at some point have to – if they aren’t already – be legitimately considered one of the best teams the Championship can boast.
Injuries and suspensions may take their toll over the gruelling examination the next 39 games will pose, weaknesses might be increasingly exposed, and pressure will probably intensify.
Saints aren’t the only side in exceptionally good form either.
But the longer this goes on, the more ridiculous expectations of a solid mid-table finish will look.
Saints, emboldened by promotion last term, and a flying start to this campaign, are tearing through the division.
They have swept aside established outfits, who themselves expected to contend. Birmingham were only the latest in a lengthening line.
Just a few months ago, these clubs were separated by an enormous gulf. In February, Birmingham beat Arsenal, at Wembley, in the Carling Cup final.
As well as adding a major trophy to their cabinet, they also booked their ticket to Europe. Saints, meanwhile, were scratching and clawing to get out of the third division.
Now, having been stunned by relegation, the Blues find themsleves swimming against the tide, desperately trying to regain some forward momentum.
The only way they are moving right now, though, is backwards. Saints have been in that unpalatable position before.
Where Chris Hughton’s side bottom out remains to be seen. Saints, conversely, are long removed from hitting their low point.
Under Adkins, they are now riding the crest of a very destructive wave. Who knows how long it will last?
There remain understandable concerns about how the team will cope if Adam Lallana, David Connolly, or
Rickie Lambert – again, all excellent yesterday – are ever forced out of the line-up.
And, defensively, there have been signs of some creaking in the last two games. But Saints have been the class of the Championship so far – and Birmingham certainly won’t argue with that.
Surprisingly, given the lopsided nature of the scoreline, it was actually the visitors who started brightest.
Chris Wood’s deflected freekick from just outside the area drew an excellent reaction save from Kelvin Davis, who enjoyed a fine game.
But, despite their strong start, Birmingham were behind after 11 minutes, as Rickie Lambert was bundled as he went to meet Danny Fox’s in-swinging corner.
Referee Dean Whitestone had no hesitation pointing to the spot, and Lambert – with the aid of a post – duly converted.
The goal rocked Birmingham, as Saints grasped control of the game. What followed next was a ruthless display of attacking and finishing that effectively killed the game by half-time.
Fox fired a warning shot, with a free-kick over the bar from 25 yards. But Guly do Prado displayed much greater accuracy in doubling the lead in the 20th minute.
Lambert flicked a ball up from the back on to Lallana, who found Connolly in a central position. He, in turn, fed a perfectly weighted pass into the right channel for the excellent Frazer Richardson, whose whipped cross was met by a superb Guly half-volley that rocketed into the corner.
Richardson and Guly then combined for Saints’ third goal, in the 33rd minute. A clever one-two on the right eventually led to the ball being cut back for Lallana, who roared into the area to side
foot home spectacularly.
Wood tried to provide a foothold before the break, with another low drive from the edge of the box right on half-time, but again Davis was equal to the stinging effort.
At the third time of trying, though, the striker did eventually force a free-kick past the Saints stopper, his drilled shot finding the net shortly after the restart.
Saints rode their luck for a time afterwards, coming under some significant pressure from a Blues side who finally found some rhythm.
First, Curtis Davies headed Jean Beausejour’s inviting free-kick just over. Stephen Carr then hit a vicious right foot shot from 20 yards that slammed off the post.
The ball rebounded to Marlon King 12 yards out, but he couldn’t react quickly enough to find the target, instead blazing high and wide.
Lallana nearly scored a magnificent goal, twisting and turning as he drove towards the heart of the Blues’ defence, but as space opened up on the edge of the box he could only curl his shot over.
With 20 minutes remaining, Guly was withdrawn for Richard Chaplow, while Hughton countered with Wade Elliott and Adam Rooney in place of Jonathan
Spector and King.
It was Adkins’ substitution that had the biggest impact, though. Lambert’s neat ball in from the left touchline found Lallana, whose sublime through ball played Chaplow in.
The midfielder, with just keeper Boaz Myhill to beat, showed plenty of composure, coolly placing the ball into the far corner, to round off another outstanding display.