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STOKE 1 - SAINTS 2
11:49am Thursday 20th July 2006 in 05-06 Season
IF THIS is a taste of what is to come for Saints under George Burley next season, then roll on August.
It is almost impossible to overstate quite how good Saints were in the first half against Stoke on Saturday.
It was without doubt the best half of football they have played under Burley and also one of the best halves of football they have played in the last couple of years.
The excellent travelling Saints support were buoyant, perhaps not quite believing what they were seeing.
They chanted 'it's just like watching Brazil' and, though the opposition weren't up to much, you could forgive their enthusiasm.
Of course, it is fair to say that Saints have suddenly started stringing performances and wins together when it doesn't matter.
When the pressure was on, they didn't deliver a play-off place. Now it's off, there's no stopping them.
But let's not forget this is about Burley's team of new players gelling together and it is suddenly starting to happen.
The other flip side of that is that no one is quite sure how many of these players - many on loans, short term contracts or deals that expire in the summer - will be here next season.
But for once this season we can just revel in a good win and a great performance - it's not as if we've had many chances to do that in the past 18 months.
In the first half, Saints' play was what you would associate with a 'George Burley team.' It was quick, it was slick, it was attacking and searching for goals.
It was one touch, on the ground, pleasing to the eye and devastatingly effective.
The first half performance was largely about the attacking players on the pitch.
The midfield looked first class, every single player comfortable on the ball, keeping possession, passing round Stoke like their players were fused to the ground.
Richard Chaplow, on the right of midfield for the first half, was outstanding, tucking inside, allowing Chris Baird, also showing why he is worth a new contract, to overlap.
Chaplow looks every inch a Premiership player on this form.
In the centre of midfield, Darren Potter showed the kind of schooling and touch you'd expect of a Liverpool player.
Jermaine Wright played that terrier-with-a-touch role with the ruthless aplomb to which we have become accustomed.
And Djamel Belmadi added balance and some composed class on the left.
Up front, Grzegorz Rasiak led the line and got himself two goals. The first came midway through the first half when he was tripped in the area and stepped up to bury the penalty into the keeper's bottom right-hand corner.
The second came shortly afterwards as he stretched to volley home Wright's deep free-kick.
The only real criticism of Saints in the first half was that they didn't score more goals.
Though the entertainment factor from Saints wasn't quite as great in the second half, there was as much pleasure from watching that in some ways.
Stoke, as you expect of the home team, were fired up and, at times like that in the past, Saints have wilted and conceded goals and points.
But the defence stood firm, Claus Lundekvam and Darren Powell uncompromising and effective throughout.
When Stoke did get a goal, with seven minutes remaining, it was unstoppable. Paul Gallagher pulled the trigger from 20 yards out and the ball flew in - there was nothing anybody could have done about it.
Again, you expected the pressure to come on Saints but so comfortable were they on the ball that they saw the game out by retaining possession.
Special mention must go to Ricardo Fuller. He may not have scored, but he was outstanding.
With Stoke playing 4-5-1, he dropped deep, in between their midfield and defence, and caused endless problems.
He looked determined and confident and put in his best Saints performance to date.
On this form, he will be one of the Championship's top players next season.
Fuller's transformation is just typical of the sort of thing we can expect from Burley.
The results may not matter in the context of the season, but in the bigger picture these performances are absolutely vital.