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Colchester United 2 Southampton 1
ANYONE getting too carried away by Saints’ recent success has been given a timely reminder of just how fine their margin for error is.
Chasing the play-offs, having started with a ten point deduction, leaves very little room for slip-ups and errors.
That is even more so when you have a slow start to the season.
After stringing together seven wins out of eight in all competitions it was understandable that confidence around Saints was high.
It was also understandable that fans were starting to dream of an unlikely assault on the top six.
The only problem is that whereas a play-off place had been a hope before, to some it had become an expectation.
THE VERDICT: Saints were a little below par against a very competitive, fiery and organised Colchester side who just about deserved their win. Saints really could do with a couple of results in their next two league games to keep the play-off places within reach.Adam Leitch
There is nothing wrong with a bit of confidence for sure, but all these things have to be kept in context.
Saints have so little room to manoeuvre, they can afford so few off days, that it remains a massive ask.
With the optimism rife around St Mary’s only a few days previously, suddenly the play-offs are ten points off.
It’s not an insurmountable gap but with just over half the season gone it will still take a terrific run of form.
After beating Exeter on Boxing Day, Alan Pardew pinpointed Saints’ next three fixtures as vital in the context of the season.
He was right.
It’s great to beat the teams you should be beating, but if your ambitions are loftier than mere mid-table then you have to beat the sides above you.
Those teams in the play-off picture are, after all, the ones you will need to overhaul come the final reckoning.
So a run of three games against sides with play-off hopes – starting at Colchester and followed by Huddersfield at St Mary’s and Millwall away – felt like a season defining period.
Do well over the course of those three and the chase for the top six really is on.
Stumble, and it looks like the rest of the campaign might have to be spent preparing for a real tilt at promotion next season.
It hasn’t started brilliantly well with a defeat at Colchester.
It was a strange type of match, a real battle.
Saints began with a 4-5-1 formation anticipating no doubt an aerial bombardment from their hosts.
But the formation didn’t quite work out, Saints just weren’t getting the benefit of their extra man in midfield playing on a narrow pitch.
Pardew duly noted this and changed to 4-4-2 at half-time.
The game was one not littered with chances. It was instead a little scrappy – Colchester ensured it was that way.
There was so little to report from the first half in terms of goalmouth action it was something of a surprise there was a goal at all.
After Saints had had a couple of half chances with Lambert flicking an instinctive header wide and Michail Antonio wasting a good situation when in behind, Colchester took the lead on 23 minutes.
Kevin Lisbie, always a threat with the ball at his feet, ran at a static Saints defence.
He looked up and threaded a defence splitting pass through to Anthony Wordsworth who lifted the ball past the advancing Bartosz Bialkowski and into the far corner.
The only other real chance of the entire first 45 minutes came when Lisbie’s header from a corner was flicked on to the roof of the net by John-Joe O’Toole.
Saints were much more of a threat in the second half with two up front and, after Steven Gillespie had rightly had a goal ruled out for offside, they started to step up the pressure.
Lambert and Connolly both couldn’t quite find decisive finishes before Saints had a goal disallowed.
A ball in behind picked out Adam Lallana who was flagged offside before his shot was saved by Ben Williams and the rebound turned home by Papa Waigo.
Then came a decisive minute in the game as Saints threatened to level but instead went 2-0 down.
On 74 minutes Lambert stepped up to hit one of his trademark free kicks.
From 25 yards out he bent it round the outside of the wall but Williams did well to save down to his left before Connolly’s follow up effort was superbly blocked by a brave challenge.
Moments later Colchester had doubled their lead.
This time it was ex-Saints loanee Phil Ifil with the decisive defence splitting pass and Gillespie with the finish.
The game started to get a bit bizarre as the freezing fog rolled in, reducing visibility massively.
In fact it was virtually impossible to see one side of the pitch from the other by the end.
The referee was determined to keep it going, though, and Saints kept on searching for a goal.
Lambert had another shot saved by Williams before Joel Thomas blazed wide for Colchester.
Dan Harding put in a great cross from the left that Lallana headed over as Saints’ frustrations grew with seven minutes remaining.
Saints were given a lifeline right at the end of the 90 minutes as they were awarded a penalty when Williams charged out of goal and upended Dean Hammond.
Lambert was, as ever, coolness personified from the penalty spot and sent the keeper the wrong way with a clean strike.
The final moments were pretty frantic as both sides battled away in the now very dense fog.
But in the end Saints couldn’t find another goal to get themselves anything out of a fiery and competitive game.
Though it was a disappointing day, there is no shame in failing to win at Colchester, such has been their form since Adrian Boothroyd took over.
But a quick look at the table underlines how little leeway Saints have got.