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Southampton 1 Luton Town 0
THIS was a win Saints needed in a game they perhaps didn’t.
Alan Pardew’s side have hit a bit of an indifferent run of form in the past few weeks.
That is not to say they have been playing badly, but they have just not been firing on all cylinders.
A slightly flattering 3-1 win over Exeter was sandwiched in between defeats at Leeds and Colchester in their last three.
With crucial games against playoff chasers Huddersfield and Millwall up next, Saints couldn’t afford to slip up at home to Luton.
They needed to bounce back from the loss at Colchester and failing to beat the Conference side in the FA Cup third round would have knocked their confidence ahead of this key period.
But, in truth, it was probably a game they could have done without.
That is not to undermine the importance of this wonderful competition or a good run in it.
But, realistically, it is not something Saints are likely to win.
The physical and mental energy it would take to do so would be so great that it would almost certainly eventually start to have a detrimental impact on their far more important league campaign.
And Saints are already coping with a huge number of fixtures.
By the end of the season, they could have played upwards of 60 games.
Featuring in so many is a good sign, as it means you are being successful, but there is always a limit.
Already there are players beginning to look a bit jaded and in need of a week off to recharge their batteries.
But the games are coming so thick and fast – and Pardew doesn’t yet have quite enough depth in some areas – for that to be possible.
Progressing to the last few stages of the FA Cup would be as exhilarating as a good run in the competition always is.
Those incredible memories of 2003 are still vivid, as they no doubt are for those who were around to appreciate the 1976 win.
However, right now, there are bigger fish to fry.
Saints also already have one exciting cup run well under way in the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy, which has meant a lot of extra games too.
But that undoubtedly represents the best chance of a Wembley final.
Saints are doing a fantastic job to be fighting so well and so competitively on three fronts.
However, the constant grind of game after game right now seems to have just taken the edge of some of their sharpness.
That is always a danger over the Christmas and new year period, when a huge number of fixtures are packed into a small period of time.
And it nearly cost them against a spirited Luton side that will feel they should have left St Mary’s with at least a replay to show for their efforts.
Despite David Connolly missing out through injury, Saints boss Pardew decided to stick with a 4- 4-2 formation, p u s h i n g A d a m Lallana up alongside Rickie Lambert.
It was the visitors who posed the first threat, with the lively Tom Craddock pouncing on a Wayne Thomas error to find room on the left.
However, Saints were able to get back to deny the youngster.
Luton keeper Kevin Pilkington made a good stop in the ninth minute, as Lallana nearly diverted in Papa Waigo’s cross at the near post.
Pilkington made another impressive save from Michail Antonio’s 21st minute drive, diving low to his right to push it out.
L u t o n w e r e defending deep and Saints were bossing the game, as they had the vast majority of possession.
Lambert nearly gave them the lead from a long-range freekick in the 24th minute.
After Ed Asafu-Adjaye was booked for a poor tackle on Papa Waigo, Lambert struck the dead ball superbly over the Luton wall.
But Pilkington flew to his right to tip the ball, which was heading for the top corner, over.
A few minutes later, Luton had to clear the ball off the line in a scramble, as Saints upped the pressure further on their goal.
Experienced striker Kevin Gallen had a decent chance at the other end, though, but couldn’t beat Kelvin Davis with a header from eight yards out after Jake Howells had picked him out.
Waigo nearly made the breakthrough just before the halfhour, as he steamed in to meet Lloyd James’ cross with an impressively powerful header, but the ball went just over.
However, Saints finally made the breakthrough in the 36th minute.
After Lallana was adjudged to have been fouled by Kevin Nicholls, Lambert curled a brilliant free kick over the wall and into the top corner, with Pilkington this time unable to deny him.
Rossi Jarvis nearly equalised just before the break, as he burst through the middle, but Davis got down to palm away his low left-foot strike.
Saints had a strong penalty shout turned down in injury time, as Dan Harding’s cross appeared to be handled by Asafu-Adjaye.
Antonio had a great opportunity to double the lead seconds after half-time, but his left foot shot from 18 yards was too close to Pilkington.
But, from then on, nearly all of the pressure came from Luton.
The biggest let off came in the 57th minute, as half-time sub Claude Gnakpa fizzed a ball across the six-yard box.
From just a yard out, at the back post, all Adam Newton had to do was tap the ball in, but he somehow got himself muddled up and couldn’t convert, before another sub, Mark Nwokeji, fired wide.
Matt Paterson was introduced for Antonio in the 65th minute and added a spark.
But Craddock nearly levelled, as he breezed past James, only to pull his left foot shot across goal just wide in the 76th minute.
Morgan Schneiderlin then picked up his fifth booking of the season, meaning a one-game ban.
Gnakpa twice went close, once with a looping header, before hitting a shot just over.
But Saints, with their seventh cup win in eight games under Alan Pardew, held on to book a place in the fourth round and avoid a very undesirable replay at Kenilworth Road.
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