Jim Mackney @JimMackney @TLE_Sport
Before kick-off you could have forgiven Saints fans for being a little nervous about this evening’s League Cup 4th round tie against Stoke. After all, for all of the pretty football Saints play could they do it on a cold and windy Wednesday night in Stoke? Judging by their first half performance the answer is unequivocally yes.
The game opened with a lively start by both teams with possession being won and lost quickly but Saints soon took control of the game and started knocking it around with ease. Stoke, weirdly, showed Saints the same reverence they showed them in the first half on Saturday.
Saints continued well in the opening exchanges and on the sixth minute, 19 year-old Matt Targett drove forward unchallenged before stroking the ball to Graziano Pellè who turned and thumped a delicious strike past the flailing Begovic from just outside the area. The shot cannoned off the inside of the post with Pellè pealing away in delight.
Stoke looked stunned by this and it wasn’t until 18th minute that they created their first half chance of the game with Jonathan Walters finally getting the better of Targett on Stoke’s right hand flank and crossing a good ball in to the box, which Nathaniel Clyne easily cleared from danger with Marko Arnautović lurking behind him.
In the 30th minute Saints built from the back and created a sumptuous passing move that included some brilliant touches between Pellè and Dusan Tadić. Tadić weighted the perfectly ball down the line for the unfollowed run of Steven Davis who perfectly cut the ball back for Shane Long to slot home and give Saints a 2-0 lead. It was Long’s first strike for the club and first goal in 15 matches.
Saints at times in the first half looked like they had arrived from another planet so comfortable were they in possession and assured of what they were trying to do.
The second half couldn’t have been more different. Much like Saturday Stoke came out energised after a few choices words from Mark Hughes and proceeded to dominate Saints for the first 20 minutes of the half.
Steven N’Zonzi was given the ball just outside the area and he lashed the ball past Fraser Forster in the 48th minute. Annoyingly from a Saints perspective the goal came after some dithering around at a quick Stoke free kick.
Koeman was evidently looking for a reaction from the Saints players but it didn’t really come. Stoke dug in and got on with their trench building in the middle of the pitch with the addition of Charlie Adam in to the game. Adam served as nothing more than a human scythe at times and picked up a yellow card for a petulant kick out at Morgan Schneiderlin after the Frenchman had won the ball fairly off Adam moments before.
Stoke for the rest of the game trusted their abilities to kick as many players as possible, it was ugly to watch, made the game scrappy but added to the tension. The Britannia was rocking and the training game that was the first half had turned into a pulsating League Cup tie.
Stoke’s prolonged pressure was even more fruitful in the 82nd minute when Phil Bardsley flicked on a Stoke corner for Mame Biram Diouf to poke in at the far post.
Peter Crouch’s introduction to the game was always going to ruffle a few Saints feathers with both his height and good ball skills. However he turned in to the pantomime villain when he picked up two yellows inside a minute. Hughes was seething on the side of the pitch and Crouch looked for all the world like he wanted the ground to swallow him whole.
Tadić whipped in the resulting free kick which hit Stoke defender Erik Pieters in the chest and Pellè was the first to react and sent the ball beyond a despairing Begovic. Cue scenes of pandemonium in the away end which Pellè gleefully joined – he got booked for the privilege.
The teams then played out six minutes of injury time with Stoke going close with a Diouf overhead kick that took Forster two attempts to gather safely and Saints could now breathe.
In truth Saints were put to the test in the second half but they deserved their win due to their excellent first half showing which left Stoke with a mountain to climb. Saints fans showed their appreciation to their side by singing ‘We’re going to Wembley’ which could be prophetic as the draw for the quarter final has Saints are away to Sheffield Utd.
Two gutsy wins in four days against one of the hardest teams in the league to break down proves Saints could well be playing for keeps this year.