Perhaps Southampton’s race is not yet run. Mark Hughes earned his first victory as their manager as his team picked up their sixth league win of the season – and their first since February – to hoist themselves closer to safety. Two goals from Dusan Tadic against neighbours Bournemouth was enough to keep what was a sinking ship in with a chance of staying afloat. Their fate may be in their own hands by the time they travel to fellow strugglers Swansea in their penultimate match in the final week of the season.
Whether this result provides sufficient impetus to ensure Saints’ top-flight survival, with three games to play, remains to be seen, but a rousing standing ovation at the final whistle from almost all quarters of St Mary’s spoke volumes. Tadic labelled it as one of Southampton’s most important wins in their history.
“I think everybody understood the significance of the result for us,” said Hughes, who was appointed in March. “The order of the day was to get those maximum three points and it was a rollercoaster but everybody stuck at it.
“Clearly, at times there is a little bit of apprehension and anxiety in our play. Hopefully, now we’ve got those points on the board the shackles will loosen.”
The magnitude of this game meant Southampton and Bournemouth have never met with more at stake. Hughes described it as a “black and white” matter given that victory here was a necessity for his side, who travel to Everton on Saturday.
Tadic’s goals, either side of a Joshua King strike, have finally injected life into Southampton’s faltering season and could yet define a late escape.
“You saw the reaction at the end of the game – it was huge for everybody,” Hughes said. “It’s not an easy situation and we are all conscious of the responsibilities we have. Maybe in the past the players have been questioned in terms of recognising what this situation is but I thought they were first-class. We will see if we can get over the line and we still have a lot to do in fairness.”
It was never going to be a nerveless occasion and Eddie Howe’s attacking side seized the initiative, with Lys Mousset’s low cross flummoxing Jan Bednarek, the Southampton defender freezing in the penalty area before conceding a corner.
Bournemouth were at ease, typified by Mousset’s nutmeg on Oriol Romeu and Nathan Aké’s show of strength when faced with Tadic on the touchline. But their comfort also allowed Saints in to prosper twice, much to Howe’s frustration.
“We made too many bad decisions and that was probably epitomised by the two goals,” the Bournemouth manager said. “The game was there for us to exert our influence but we were too wasteful.”
The visitors were on the front foot when Southampton swarmed upfield in the 25th minute, Charlie Daniels, the last defender, isolated against Mario Lemina. The Saints midfielder galloped forward before teeing up Tadic to slot home into the corner beyond Asmir Begovic in the Bournemouth goal.
The home joy did not last to half-time, however. First, Aké, after swivelling away from Maya Yoshida and Wesley Hoedt, was superbly denied by the outstretched left leg of the Southampton goalkeeper, Alex McCarthy, before King, lurking unmarked, stabbed home from the resulting corner.
Southampton had been thrust back to square one. It could have been worse after the interval but McCarthy pulled off another fine save, this time from Lewis Cook’s swerving effort from distance.
However, in the 54th minute, when Steve Cook, the Bournemouth defender, went to chest down a routine ball in the centre circle, Tadic nipped in to pick up the pieces. He edged closer and closer to goal as Bournemouth backed off before the invitation was too good to pass up, and he stepped inside to fire beyond Begovic.
Austin’s cross-cum-shot was almost diverted home by substitute Shane Long only for Begovic’s towering frame to intervene.
Bournemouth and Howe responded. Jermain Defoe and Jordon Ibe were thrown on and the former was superbly thwarted by Hoedt’s sliding challenge late on with only McCarthy to beat. Austin then slammed an effort into the side-netting as the Saints toyed with their supporters’ nerves.
Southampton looked set to seal the win, only for Simon Francis to nick the ball away from Lemina just as he readied himself to score into an empty net.
Stuart Attwell, the fourth official, indicated five added minutes and only at full time could Southampton finally toast the most priceless of results.
Promotion and relegation: how they stand
Champions: Manchester City
Europe: Manchester United, Liverpool and Tottenham are favourites for the top four with Chelsea in fifth. Arsenal could still reach the Champions League by winning the Europa League. Burnley look certain to finish seventh and return to Europe after 51 years away.
Relegation: West Brom are now five points from safety with two games to play. Stoke are just two points above the Baggies, while Southampton are now a point behind Swansea, who they play in their penultimate match. West Ham and Huddersfield are still looking over their shoulders.
Automatic promotion: Cardiff need a home win over Reading to seal promotion, with Fulham hoping to pounce on any slip-up as they face Birmingham on the final day.
Play-offs: Aston Villa and Middlesbrough, and Derby leading the race to join them. Preston can still force their way into the top six.
Relegation: Sunderland will finish bottom with Burton, Bolton and Barnsley separated by a point. Barnsley can secure survival with a win at Derby on the final day, while Burton go to Preston and Bolton host Nottingham Forest.
Automatic promotion: Wigan and Blackburn (pictured) have sealed automatic promotion and will now battle for the title. A point at Doncaster on the final day will realistically be enough for the Latics.
Play-offs: Shrewsbury and Rotherham, with Charlton, Scunthorpe and Plymouth battling for the other two places. The latter two meet in midweek.
Relegation: Bury and MK Dons are down while Walsall’s late winner has left Northampton all but mathematically relegated. Oldham and Rochdale are fighting to avoid the final spot; they face Northampton and Charlton respectively on the last day.
Champions: Accrington Stanley
Automatic promotion: Luton Town, Wycombe (pictured)
Play-offs: Exeter City, Notts County and two from Coventry, Lincoln and Mansfield, who need to beat Crawley on the last day to have any chance of sneaking in.
Relegation: Barnet‘s win at Morecambe took the race for survival to the final day. If the Bees beat already-relegated Chesterfield, they can leapfrog Morecambe if the Shrimps lose at Coventry.
National League: Macclesfield Town have secured the only automatic promotion spot, with one from Tranmere, Sutton, Boreham Wood, Aldershot, Ebbsfleet and AFC Fylde to come up via the play-offs.
Premiership: Celtic can seal the title by beating Rangers on Sunday. Relegation looks a straight fight between Partick Thistle and Ross County.
Championship: St Mirren are champions, with Livingston, Dundee United and Dunfermline set for promotion/relegation play-offs. Brechin are relegated.
League One: Ayr United are champions with Raith, Alloa and Arbroath joining Dumbarton in the play-offs. Albion are relegated.
League Two: Montrose are champions with Peterhead, Stirling and Stenhousemuir joining Queen’s Park in the play-offs. Cowdenbeath face a relegation play-off with Cove Rangers or Spartans.
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