Saints comfortably progressed to the 3rd round of the League Cup, following a 4-1 win at Stevenage. The visitors were well below their best in the first half, but stepped it up in the second and fully deserved their victory.
Nigel Adkins made wholesale changes to the team, with all eleven players that started at Wigan missing out in favour of fringe players and youth teamers. It was the usual 4-2-3-1 formation, with Paulo Gazzaniga starting in goal in front of a back four of Danny Butterfield, Frazer Richardson, Dan Seaborne and Luke Shaw. Dean Hammond played as the deepest midfield player, with James Ward-Prowse occupying space through the middle. Tadanari Lee made a welcome return on the left flank, with Jason Puncehon operating on the opposite side. Richard Chaplow played as an attacking midfielder behind lone front man Billy Sharp. Adkins named a young bench, with Jake Sinclair making his first appearance in the senior squad.
The early stages of the game were very scrappy. Stevenage were quick to close down and put Saints under pressure. They congested the pitch and forced the visitors into plenty of mistakes. Saints thought they had the lead after only a couple of minutes, when Ward-Prowse threaded a terrific through ball into the path of Sharp, who found the net, only for the goal to be ruled offside.
Stevenage had much the better of the first half chances, causing plenty of panic within the Saints box. They hit the bar at one point, and got into some good goal scoring positions, without taking advantage. Saints produced a few decent triangles, but by and large the passing was erratic. There were few very chances for the visitors before the break. Butterfield hit a low effort wide, while Luke Shaw made a dangerous run down the left hand side, only to see his cross cut out.
Saints were much more adventurous at the start of the second half, with their superior quality shining through. The away side started to find some rhythm and fluidity to their play, using the full length of the pitch to stretch the play. The full-backs Butterfield and Shaw were more involved, attacking from the flanks. The improvement was there for all to see, and Saints were quick to make their dominance count. On 52 minutes Lee marked his first game back with a goal. Puncheon did very well to pick out Sharp on the edge of the area. The Saints centre-forward then pulled the ball back for Lee, whose shot went straight through the grasp of Stevenage keeper. Adkins' men then had a chance to make it 2-0 when Sharp was played in on goal from a free-kick, but he collided with Chaplow before the keeper gathered the ball. The pair made amends a few minutes later by combining for the 2nd goal. Stevenage gave away a free-kick in their own box when keeper Chris Day collected a back-pass. Chaplow quickly squared the ball to Sharp, who created space for himself before completing a neat finish.
Saints were in complete control of the football throughout the 2nd half, and once it went 2-0 the result was never in doubt. At that point it was just a question of how many. It was 3-0 on 76 minutes when Puncheon brilliantly flicked the ball up before firing an unstoppable volley into the corner of the net. Saints will do well to score a better goal than that all season. Adkins brought on youngsters Ben Reeves, Calum Chambers and Sam Hoskins for the closing stages, with all three players making an impact. Hoskins was desperately unlucky not to score. He brilliantly turned a defender on the edge of the penalty area with his back to goal, before firing a shot just wide. At the other end Stevenage pulled a goal back through Michael Thalassitis, who smashed in from close range. Saints restored their three goal advantage minutes later when Ben Reeves curled the ball into the top corner from outside of the area.
A fairly enjoyable evening of football. Saints overcame a difficult start to see out the game with ease. We've come unstuck against lower league opposition in this competition many times before, so to come through without our most valuable performers is a good achievement. This club is about more than just the first team, and Saints proved once again that they have strength in depth and quality youngsters coming through the ranks. Tadanari Lee made a great impact, and should hopefully make a return to league action soon. The kids looked good, with Ward-Prowse standing out once again. Sam Hoskins and Ben Reeves may not ever make it as Saints regulars, but both are talented lads, who always get themselves over on the rare occasions they do get a chance.
Gazzaniga: 6. A few nervy moments early on, but after weathering the initial storm, he looked fairly comfortable.
Butterfield: 6. Looked rusty early on, and gave the ball away a few times, but grew into the game over time
Richardson: 6. Distribution hit and miss, but fairly solid defensively
Seaborne: 7. Not on the same page as Shaw early on, but recovered from his mistakes, bringing an air of calm to the defence
Shaw: 6. Looked nervous defensively with a few errors, but some excellent forward runs.
Hammond: 7. Helped guide some of the younger players through the game with great leadership qualities. Always showing for the ball
Ward-Prowse: 7. Another composed showing. Great range of passing
Puncheon: 8. Deserves the man of the match award for the goal alone. Always a threat cutting inside from the right
Chaplow: 6. Struggled to get involved in the first half, but quick thinking helped to set up the 2nd goal
Lee: 7. Looked sharp on his return and set things off with a goal
Sharp: 6. Below his best for much of the game, but there where it mattered for the goal
Reeves: Looked really bright going forward. Capped a decent cameo with a fine goal
Chambers: Debutant threw himself into a few hefty challenges and showed some good touches
Hoskins: Deserved his goal, so unlucky not to get it.
Not long after the conclusion of the match Saints announced the signing of Zambian striker Emmanuel Mayuka, who joins on a five year deal from Young Boys of Switzerland. We’ll have more on Mayuka and any other new signings in the next few days.