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Southampton 3, Leeds United 1
WITH every new season comes fresh hope.
Around St Mary’s, there has certainly been plenty of it this summer. Promotion from League One last season has energised the club and their fanbase.
Saints have proudly marched back into the Championship, and expectations are high. Straight away, there is a demand for the team to compete in this division.
On the evidence of their opening day destruction of Leeds, it looks clear that they can.
Results on the first weekend of the season can be notoriously misleading. But performances like Saints produced in Saturday’s 3-1 victory at St Mary’s cannot be ignored.
Nigel Adkins’ men sent out an emphatic message to the rest of the Championship – we are a real threat.
How far up the table the club can push at the first attempt back in the second tier remains to be seen, especially as life will not always be so easy as the gruelling 46-game season goes on.
A comfortable mid-table finish would be a solid year, and should be a given for a side with Saints’ quality.
But it is an ambitious club, and there are plenty of people who believe they can achieve more.
One of those is the man whose picture adorned the front of Saturday’s matchday programme – chairman Nicola Cortese.
The sight of the St Mary’s chief on the cover of the season’s first issue sparked plenty of debate among supporters about whether it was an advisable PR move or not.
But all the talk after the final whistle was rightly about the team. Saints produced an enormously encouraging display.
And, whether they can ultimately mount a serious promotion push or not this year, it is clear they are a force not to be taken lightly.
Saturday’s display was a ringing endorsement of the work put in this pre-season.
The opening day is so often a sign of who has prepared the best.
Those who are the sharpest are generally the most likely to prevail.
Adkins has been meticulous in his preparations over the summer, and it has paid dividends.
Saints have a fit and competitive squad who have hit the ground running.
Of course, there are still areas that need addressing.
Adkins is continuing his search for a long-term partner alongside Jose Fonte at the heart of defence.
Elsewhere, Brazilian forward Guly do Prado is a talented player, but has yet to find a position where he can really flourish, still looking a little uncomfortable out wide.
And it is no secret Adkins has been looking at bringing in another striker to supplement his attack.
So the Saints squad is still undergoing an evolution right now.
Over the coming weeks, Adkins will find out just how well some of his players adapt to the Championship.
He will have no concerns over Adam Lallana, who proved he is more than ready to flourish at this level.
Adkins’ men were assured in the opening stages, even in the face of some robust Leeds challenges.
But, for all their control, it was the visitors who first went closest to breaking the deadlock, Jonny Howson volleying straight at Davis from Ross McCormack’s eighth minute knock down.
But just two minutes later Saints got the goal they deserved for their early endeavours. Dean Hammond took Guly’s pass in midfield, drove forward and unleashed a low, left-footed drive into the bottom corner from 20 yards.
It was a dream start, and St Mary’s erupted. The noise level grew even more in the 25th minute, as Saints doubled their lead.
Rickie Lambert’s clever pass found Lallana in the box.
He dropped his shoulder and cut back past Andy O’Brien, before planting a perfectly-placed left foot shot in off the far post.
Had Lallana produced a finish of equal measure moments later, it would have been 3-0, but Andy Lonergan saved at his feet from close range, after Guly’s fizzed pass had picked him out.
Lambert’s best effort of the day arrived just before the break, as he pulled the trigger on a 25-yard free-kick. It was a ferocious, whipping effort, but one that flew just wide.
Max Gradel could have got Leeds back into the game seconds after the restart, but just when it looked as if he was through, Martin flew back with a last-ditch sliding tackle to snuff out the threat.
And the game was over as a contest in the 52nd minute, with a goal that topped even Saints’ first two for quality.
Connolly’s clever flick over the defence found Lallana on the left edge of the area. The midfielder watched as the striker set off on an incisive run, rolled the ball into his path and let Connolly slot it calmly into the far corner. It was a simply magnificent goal.
Leeds sub Billy Paynter could have made it a nervous last half-an-hour, after being put through by Adam Clayton’s pass, but Davis made a superb one-on-one stop to deny him.
Gradel then had a peanlty claim turned down, after tumbling under Cork’s challenge, while Martin bounced a header just over from close range.
Saints sub Richard Chaplow then rattled a post with a long range missile, before the visitors grabbed a late consolation.
After Martin was adjudged to have handled in the area, Gradel put away the resulting penalty in injury-time – but it was a small blemish on an otherwise wonderful day.