IF SAINTS are to survive, they absolutely must learn how to close out games.
Last night’s game against Derby should have resulted in three crucial points in their battle for survival.
Saints may have considered the equaliser for Nigel Clough’s men as unlucky.
It might be unfair to say Saints switched off – exactly what Mark Wotte warned them not to do after Saturday’s loss to Birmingham – but ultimately they drew a game they could and should have won.
Mile Sterjovski’s own goal looked to have given Saints a vital win, but substitute Steve Davies ghosted in unmarked at the back post to level late on to cost them two points.
How crucial they will prove to be remains to be seen.
But they were two points that Saints should not have allowed to slip from their grasp.
With games running out, the room for error is rapidly reducing with every missed opportunity.
Last night’s result was certainly that, against an organised, but technically average Derby side ravaged by injury.
Too many times this season Saints have led at home, only to finish without a victory.
Wotte told his players at the weekend that they had to be “mentally stronger” after the Birmingham defeat.
Although they once again put in all the necessary hard work, perhaps they just weren’t mentally strong enough in the closing minutes.
Not only did Derby grab a late equaliser, but they nearly scored a winner.
Last night’s result was disappointing, but it wasn’t a disaster.
Saints are still in the relegation zone, but they are not out of touch.
However, other sides around them are still continuing to pick up points – not all are winning, but many are.
Saints now face four crucial matches, starting with QPR at home this Saturday.
After that follows Blackpool away, Charlton at St Mary's and Watford away.
That is an absolutely crucial spell for Wotte’s side.
Had they held on last night they would have been given a great head start going into that period.
Instead, they are still playing catch up and have it all to do.
This is certainly a different side to the one that we saw for much of the season.
They are more organised and more threatening.
But last night, the same flaw that has hurt them at too many times this season – late goals – reared its head again.
Saints cannot afford to be plagued by those late strikes between now and the end of the season.
The quality is certainly now clearly there to keep Saints up, but they absolutely have to find that extra mental strength to hold on in these games.
If they can do so against QPR on Saturday then there is still room for plenty of optimism.
But they cannot afford too many repeats of last night’s late stages.
Nacer Barazite had the first effort of the game, firing straight at Kelvin Davis from the edge of the box in the sixth minute.
Morgan Schneiderlin then hit a rasping effort just over five minutes later.
Stephen Bywater bravely smothered at the feet of Chris Perry in the 19th minute, as he looked to latch onto Jason Euell’s knock-down.
Rob Hulse’s diving header midway through the half drifted over, before Saints had a weak penalty appeal dismissed, as Andrew Surman went down under Andy Todd’s challenge.
Surman lifted Euell’s knock-down over Bywater at the near post in the 27th minute, but the ball went wide, before Euell fired over seconds later.
Gary Teale’s low free-kick from 25 yards in the 31st minute flew just past Davis’ post.
Marek Saganowski had the last chance of a disjointed and, frankly poor, half.
But his volley across goal, after chesting down Jan-Paul Saeijs’ long ball was too weak to beat Bywater.
Wotte brought Adam Lallana on for Schneiderlin at half-time in a bid to inject a bit more creativity.
Teale’s shot from distance in the 51st minute was well handled by Davis. Hulse muscled Saeijs out of the way two minutes later to latch onto Bywater’s goal kick and bear down on goal.
But Davis was equal to his effort at the near post and Hulse tamely put the rebound wide.
Neither side were looking like scoring, but, out of nowhere, Saints took the lead in the 59th minute.
Simon Gillett’s corner was nodded down by Euell to Perry.
He smashed a right foot shot, which cannoned back off the bar, but hit the unfortunate Mile Sterjovski on the heels and trickled over the line.
Surman could have made it 2-0 minutes later, but pulled his shot badly wide from David McGoldrick’s cutback.
Derby were almost gifted an equaliser in the 64th minute, as Davis let Teale’s cross go through his hands.
It looked as if the ball would drop in at the far post, but it somehow went wide.
There was an undeniable nervous tension around St Mary’s as the game entered the last 20 minutes.
There was a worrying moment in the 78th minute, as a combination of Hulse and substitute Nathan Ellington nearly got onto the end of Barazite’s ball.
However, they both conspired to somehow turn it wide from close range.
But Derby were level in the 83rd minute.
Martin Albrechtsen’s speculative shot from the left found its way through a crowd to substitute Steve Davies at the back post and he powered the ball past Davis.
Saganowski then sliced a volley high and wide as Saints tried to respond.
Davies nearly dealt a hammer blow to Saints three minutes from time, cutting in from the left and curling a shot past Davis, only to see it come back off the post.
Euell then muscled his way through a minute later, but couldn’t get enough power on his volley.