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Saints 0 Preston North End 1
CHRISTMAS is a time for giving, but Saints need to do some taking in the final third to keep their season alive this festive period.
Unfortunately all the positivity going into the game against Preston after a four-match unbeaten run drained out in the space of 90 disappointing minutes at St Mary's.
It wasn't that Saints played particularly badly; they just didn't do particularly well where it matters most.
That was exacerbated by high expectations coming into the game due to Saints' recent form and Preston's position in the Championship drop zone.
We have all known how important these fixtures are for Saints going into the Christmas and New Year period to allow them the space to kick on in 2008.
It seemed the corner had been turned and, whilst performances weren't spectacular, they were steady, consistent and encouraging.
A draw would have been a fair result but Saints paid the price for a below par display in the final third after plenty of good work up to that point. There is the need for some good results over hectic Christmas and the New Year period now.Adam Leitch
But while the defence has tightened up, goals have been harder to come by, aside from the 4-0 drubbing of Hull when everything just went right in front of goal in a short burst.
The problems against Preston were all in the final third.
Again the defence did its job, breached only by a late goal as the team pressed on trying to find a winner and leaving themselves exposed.
For most of the game, Saints dominated possession.
But they couldn't do anything with it in the areas that mattered.
It's all very well having more possession, but if it's not in areas of the field that hurt the opposition then it doesn't mean a lot.
Preston were well organised and compact with two well-drilled banks of four squeezing to allow Saints little room to play in in the final third.
They allowed Saints the ball outside of that and posed them a challenge to try and break them down.
It was a challenge Saints were unable to meet and, in the end, they paid the ultimate price by taking just a point from a game they would have been expecting to win.
Despite their dominance of possession, Saints probably had less good chances than Preston.
One of the best came early on when Rudi Skacel cutback from the left by-line to Andrew Surman.
He swung a leg at the ball but couldn't connect cleanly and, by the time he got a second effort away, he had been closed down.
But Preston had an even better opening when a corner was only half cleared to Chris Sedgwick, who should have found the net but instead lashed well wide.
Preston made a couple of good blocks and Andy Lonergan a few routine saves as Saints were largely restricted to efforts from distance and tight angles in the second half.
From a Preston point of view, Paul Gallagher hit the side netting while Darren Carter fizzed in a shot from 25 yards that beat Kelvin Davis but smashed against the post.
Manager George Burley changed both his strikers for the final stages with Bradley Wright-Phillips and Stern John having struggled somewhat.
Grzegorz Rasiak was the last on but popped up with a chance with two minutes remaining.
Adam Hammill crossed from the right and Rasiak was there in the area to head the ball goalwards, but saw his effort stopped by Lonergan diving full length to his left to keep it out.
And then came the shock Preston winner.
At the same time as the fourth official held his board up to show three minutes of injury time, Simon Whaley launched the ball down the right wing.
Patrick Agyemang, a second half substitute with pace to burn, hammered down to the by-line.
He looked up and fired a firm low ball back and across goal to the far post where another sub, Lewis Neal, was charging in to meet it and sidefoot across Davis and into the far corner for the three points.
It is just such a frustrating season for Saints and this typified it.
Finally they get themselves on a good run, manage to put out a settled side and people are happy about where the team is going.
Then, just when you don't expect it, some of the old problems resurface and make you wonder whether they ever really went away.
Burley will be only too aware that his side are still in a position to be in and around the top six come the end of the festive period.
But there is little room for error in their upcoming games now.
It just seems to be the Saints way this season.
We can only hope that the results elsewhere in the division carry on in the same manner to make sure there is no rueing of missed opportunities a few months down the line.