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Southampton 2 Charlton Athletic 1
THE prospect of a Wembley final is moving tantalisingly close for Saints.
Last night's win against Charlton in the Johnstone's Paint Trophy means they are just two rounds from a grand day out in the nation’s capital.
There is undoubtedly a sense of excitement beginning to build about the competition.
Sure, it’s not anywhere near the level we all saw in the FA Cup six years ago, but it is there.
Unless you are one of the big four in the Premier League, the chance to reach a cup final is so rare and so precious.
The Johnstone’s Paint Trophy is not a competition Saints ideally want any part of, but they are in it and it represents a great opportunity for success.
A very impressive all-round display from Saints, who deservedly went through and took their unbeaten run to eight matches. A big day out at Wembley is getting closer and is something Saints should really be gunning for.Gordon Simpson
Some people will scoff at it, but for clubs like Saints such chances can’t be sniffed at.
Yes, it is possible a Wembley appearance could come through the play-offs.
Although they might not all readily admit it yet, that is the aim for everyone at the club this season.
But the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy undoubtedly represents the best opportunity for a chance to play at the famous stadium.
Reaching a play-off final in May would be an amazing achievement for Saints – an FA Cup final would be astonishing.
But, make no mistake, this is a competition they are one of the firm favourites for.
To win a piece of silverware would set down a real benchmark and make a statement about the direction Saints are heading – success, like failure, is contagious after all.
Okay, no one wants the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy to be a regular fixture in the calendar.
But what a great bonus it would be for the club to win it during what will hopefully be a very short stay in League One.
Some footballers go their whole careers without ever playing in a final, so for the Saints players this is a great chance to experience one.
It could also give them a valuable taste of what such a day is like for potentially more important Wembley finals to come.
For the Saints fans, who have suffered badly for the last few seasons, it would also be a moment to treasure.
If it was down to support, the club would be a certainty for the final.
Last night’s crowd was the biggest of the round by about 3,500 – even with the match being televised live – and just goes to show the fans are excited by what Saints could achieve in the competition.
There is still a lot of work to do to get to Wembley, but last night’s win in the southern area quarterfinal means Saints are getting mighty close.
Certainly, if they play like they did against Charlton, they will be mighty difficult to beat.
Saints were strong, solid, threatening and full of quality.
They were a class above Charlton, who had the look of a side that had just lost 1-0 to Northwich Victoria, and should have won by more.
Dean Hammond, who took up the captain's armband in Davis’s absence, nearly gave Saints the lead in the second minute.
Lloyd James’ corner to the back post was missed by keeper Carl Ikeme, but Hammond’s header bounced into the ground and went over.
The early stages were dominated by Saints, who were seeing a lot of the ball and knocking it around in a composed fashion.
Charlton’s first real sight of goal didn’t arrive until midway through the half as Scott Wagstaff hit a harmless shot into the arms of Bialkowski from 20 yards, before Rickie Lambert put a longrange free kick over.
For all Saints’ dominance, chances were beginning to prove few and far between, though.
It took until the 34th minute for the next one to arrive – thankfully, for Saints, it produced a goal.
Connolly won a corner and James’ in-swinging delivery wasn't dealt with by the visitors.
That allowed Wayne Thomas to steam in and put Saints in front from close range.
Two minutes later, Connolly curled a beautiful left foot effort just past the far post as Saints continued to dominate.
Michail Antonio’s fierce right foot effort was tipped onto the post by Carl Ikeme six minutes before half-time, before Connolly was hauled down in the ensuing scramble.
It looked to be a strong case for a penalty, but Saints’ appeals for a penalty were waved away.
Pardew made his first change at half-time, replacing Morgan Schneiderlin with Neal Trotman.
Thomas moved to right back, with James going into central midfield and Trotman slotting in alongside Radhi Jaidi in the heart of defence.
Antonio almost burst through five minutes after the break.
He tangled with Grant Basey as he tried to break free and, although it looked as if he may have been fouled, nothing was given.
Saints had another penalty shout refused three minutes later, this time for handball, as Lambert's shot struck Miguel Llera.
Pardew switched to 4-5-1 as Papa Waigo replaced Connolly after 56 minutes and nearly scored shortly after coming on, only for Ikeme to tip his effort from 20 yards wide.
Lallana’s fierce effort from just outside the box was deflected wide, before Bialkowski saved well at his near post from David Mooney.
Saints doubled their lead with a brilliant move in the 63rd minute.
Waigo fed the ball into Lallana, who rolled it back to Lambert. He took a touch then drove the ball into the bottom corner from the edge of the box.
Deon Burton could have pulled one back in the 77th minute, but he could only divert wide from a good position, while Luke Holden also missed from a threatening chance.
They did pull one back in injury time, though, as Leon McKenzie turned in Holden’s right wing cross.
But Saints deservedly saw the game out to book their place in the southern area semi-final.
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