Saints moved up to 15th with a hard-fought win at Aston Villa. The away side played well in periods, but had to withstand heavy pressure towards the end of the game. Saints had to do it without influential players Jose Fonte and Adam Lallana. Guly Do Prado also missed out through illness, with Jay Rodriguez starting in a flexible 4-4-2 formation.
The game experienced a very frantic start, with both sides looking to get the ball forward quickly. Saints were a tad slicker in possession, but Villa had the first major chance - with Christian Benteke firing over. The hosts used Benteke as their main attacking outlet. The Belgian forward drifted to the left, latching on to balls played over the top. Saints regularly tested Villa with crosses into the box. On 21 minutes Rodriguez headed just wide following good work from Jason Puncheon and Gaston Ramirez. Six minutes later Luke Shaw had a shot which dragged wide. Saints grew into the game and were particularly threatening on the break. The away side regularly exploited space down the right-hand side where Villa were exposed. Then on 34 minutes came the most controversial incident of the game. Puncheon and Villa keeper Brad Guzan were involved in a collision in the penalty area. Puncheon was taken out by Guzan, although it looked as if the American keeper got a hand to the ball first. Rodriguez then went down under the challenge of Enda Stevens. On closer inspection it was clear there was no contact between the two players. Naturally Paul Lambert and the media were up in arms about it afterwards, but its worth noting Rodriguez didn't appeal for a penalty. It's entirely possible he went down because he was anticipating a challenge that never came and wanted to get his body out of the way to avoid injury. TV and radio analysts were outraged by Rodriguez's supposed dive, yet barely anything was mentioned about Villa's thuggish tactics. Ramirez and Shaw were on the end of a couple of hefty challenges, while Yoshida was elbowed in the face. Those 'tackles' are far more damaging to the game of football than diving is. Once all the dust had settled Rickie Lambert stepped up to send the keeper the wrong way. Saints looked comfortable up until half-time. Not long before the break, Shaw made a bursting run forward, before testing Guzan with a low drive.
Villa turned up the heat during the second half, but Saints were a threat on the counter throughout. Rodriguez beat the offside trap on a number of occasions, but could never quite find that finishing touch. Fortunately for Saints, Benteke's end-product was even worse. The centre-forward was presented with a great chance when Stevens' long-ranger was parried by Artur Boruc, but somehow conspired to fire over from close range. Villa began to stretch the play following the introduction of Gabby Agbonlahor, utilising the flanks with greater regularity. The last 10 minutes or so were incredibly tense. Benteke curled a shot just over, before Nathan Baker headed against the crossbar. The best chance arrived very late on. Agbonlahor had his shot blocked by Boruc, with the ball rebounding back to Benteke. The Belgian hooked the ball over the bar with the goal at his mercy. Saints did well to run down the clock in stoppage time, and could have nicked a second right at the end, with substitute Steven Davis breaking through.
Not our best performance of the season, but far from our worst. We played well at times, but need to up our game in the upcoming fixtures. If we make as many mistakes as we did today against Chelsea then we'll be in for a long night. Still, any win is a good win, and this one couldn't have come at a much better time, with a tough run of games coming up. It means that even if the worse happens and we lose the next three, we won't be cut adrift. Credit must go to the team for pulling a result out of the bag without Fonte and Lallana. Our form against the fellow strugglers has been pretty good this season. As long as we keep taking points off the teams around us then we'll been fine.
Boruc: 7. One bad spill, but otherwise very good. Very comfortable dealing with constant Villa crosses
Clyne: 7. Got beaten by Benteke once early on, but otherwise very good at both ends of the pitch
Yoshida: 7. Once moment of misjudgement nearly cost us, but apart from that an excellent defensive display
Hooiveld: 7. More like the Jos of last season. Only slight criticism is that his distribution could have been better
Shaw: 8. Another mature showing. Timing superb at the back. Decent work going forward too
Schneiderlin: 8. A typically tireless display. At the heart of most of Saints' attacking moves
Cork: 7. One misplaced pass nearly let Villa in on the counter, but otherwise very steady in the middle of the park
Puncheon: 7. Worked hard as always, defending well up and down the right.
Ramirez: 7. Shielded the ball well and made space for himself against a physical Villa outfit
Lambert: 7. Played in a much deeper role, with Rodriguez usually operating as the more advanced forward. Passing was excellent
Rodriguez: 7. Movement and timing very good. Won the penalty
Fox: Did what he had to do during the closing stages
Davis: Could have scored at the death against his former club
De Ridder: Made a decent contribution in the closing stages. Helped to see out time by holding on to the ball