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Stevenage 1 Southampton 4
SAINTS might have been used to being the big club in the lower leagues in recent years, but this was a first cup tie as a top flight side for some time.
It may not sound all that significant but it is.
The opposition, and their fans, were all very up for the game, desperate to be the ones to upset the big boys.
That is how Saints are seen now – the last time Stevenage’s fans would have seen Saints was probably on their television screens against Manchester City at the Etihad.
Alright, the side in front of them at the Lamex Stadium last night was different, but it was still a Premier League squad and all the expectations that brings.
Saints struggled to come to terms with it all for 45 minutes, but in the second half proved what quality is all about.
The first half was tough work for Saints. They found their League One opponents to be a pretty decent side.
Not only were Stevenage big, strong, physical, determined and happy to give everything to compete, as you would expect from the lower league side in a cup tie, but they could play a bit as well.
They were perfectly comfortable with the ball at their feet and were happy to knock it about patiently and try and go direct in behind or out wide when the opportunity arose.
The truth was that Stevenage looked like what they were – a real team who are used to playing with each other.
Saints were a collection of individuals thrown together for a cup tie with the league team resting back at home.
Most of them were getting their first meaningful action of the season, and trying to adapt to the new system that the first team were playing.
It just took time for them to gel, as, to be fair, you would expect.
You always sensed Saints had that greater quality in the final third and that would be the difference, but for the first 45 minutes it counted for nothing as they failed to create a meaningful chance.
Indeed, they were pretty lucky to go in goalless and it was probably only that difference in class in the business end of the pitch that meant it was that way.
It didn’t look as though it would be that way as Billy Sharp found the back of the net after four minutes but the flag had already been raised for offside.
Stevenage came very close on eight minutes as Greg Tansey’s free kick from 25 yards smashed against the underside of the bar, bounced down and was cleared by Saints.
Marcus Haber headed Luke Freeman’s cross over the bar before Paulo Gazzaniga got down to his left to save from Robbie Rogers.
Haber totally outpaced Frazer Richardson to get in behind the defence on 35 minutes and it was only thanks to Dan Seaborne that Freeman didn’t tap home from close range.
Mark Roberts fired into the side netting four minutes before half time but when the whistle went it was Saints who were the happier to have the chance to regroup and rethink.
It did the trick as Saints came out instantly looking livelier and doing so much more of their playing up the field rather than in risky areas at the back.
Saints proved to have that extra quality as just eight minutes of dominance from them produced the goal that eluded Stevenage in a strong first 45.
Jason Puncheon had a large hand in it with some good work to find Sharp down the right.
His low cross evaded Richard Chaplow but not Tadanari Lee who had drifted in from the left and produced an empathic finish from 12 yards out.
They might have added another on 64 minutes had Sharp not curled over the bar after great work from Lee and Puncheon to find him in the area.
You got the sense that a second goal would kill off Stevenage’s belief and Saints duly delivered it on 74 minutes.
Referee Olive Langford gave a disputed and debatable free kick in the penalty area for a pass back.
While Stevenage were arguing the toss, Puncheon wasted no time in tapping the ball square and presenting Sharp the chance to fire home into a virtually unguarded net.
Puncheon finished any concern about the result of the tie as he produced a fantastic goal just two minutes later. From 25 yards out he flicked the ball up and volleyed it, seeing it dip past the helpless Chris Day for 3-0.
Late sub Sam Hoskins almost put the icing on the cake as he fired across goal but narrowly wide before Stevenage got a consolation their play had more than deserved as Michael Thalassitis fired home across Gazzaniga and into the far corner.
That still wasn’t the late scoring done, though, as Ben Reeves took aim from distance and smashed in a shot from outside the area that left Day with no chance.