Stuart James at the Liberty Stadium
A night of drama and tension ended with Southampton all but securing their Premier League status for another season, Swansea City staring relegation in the face and West Brom joining Stoke City in the Championship next season. Manolo Gabbiadini was the player who set that chain of events in motion with a goal that was scrappy and untidy but worth its weight in gold to Mark Hughes and his players.
“We are staying up,” chanted the Southampton fans as the players joined hands to celebrate in front of them at the final whistle. Hughes was as pumped up as anyone as he strode on to the pitch without shaking hands with Carlos Carvalhal, clenching his fist and embracing the players who have taken Saints to the verge of safety.
Swansea were crestfallen. They are three points adrift with only one game left and will need to beat Stoke at home on Sunday and hope Huddersfield lose their final two fixtures, against Chelsea and Arsenal, to have any chance of staying up. On this evidence there is little chance of Swansea keeping their side of that bargain.
The Carvalhal revival has crashed and burned. Swansea have failed to win in nine matches and this was the eighth home game of the season in which they have not scored. They are toothless in attack and Carvalhal’s negative approach over the last couple of months – he has become obsessed with playing five at the back – has done nothing to help their cause.
Hughes read the script in that respect. Southampton sat deep initially, defending in numbers, and effectively asked Swansea to break them down. As has been the case so often Swansea struggled to do so, and there was always a feeling Southampton had the wherewithal to punish them at the other end, especially when they started to attack with more conviction after the break.
The goal arrived in the 72nd minute and it was a desperately poor one to concede. Dusan Tadic’s corner was headed back across goal by the unmarked Shane Long, it was flicked on again by Oriol Romeu and although Lukasz Fabianski managed to keep out Charlie Austin’s shot, Gabbiadini was perfectly positioned to sweep home from inside the six-yard box four minutes after coming on.
Hughes said he had always planned to introduce Gabbiadini at some stage, and the Southampton manager made it clear he had felt this was a must-win game because Saints face Manchester City on the final day.
A heavy defeat against City and an emphatic Swansea win could still see Hughes’s team relegated in theory, yet nobody can realistically expect a nine-goal swing in the respective fixtures.
For Hughes, victory was particularly sweet because of some of the shenanigans that went on before the game. The Swansea hotel Southampton planned to stay in was cancelled at short notice on Sunday, forcing Hughes and his players to find alternative accommodation in Cardiff, and there was more frustration for the visitors when they arrived at the Liberty Stadium and were told they would have to wait on the bus.
Hughes had had enough at that point and instructed his players to leave the team coach and walk the 100 yards or so to the entrance.
Although the atmosphere crackled inside the Liberty Stadium in the early stages the game was something of a slowburner. Swansea had plenty of possession and tried to dictate the tempo but they created little going forward.
Andy King’s low drive was comfortably saved by Alex McCarthy and Sam Clucas’s glancing header fell the wrong side of the far upright; but that was the sum total of Swansea’s threat before the interval and it was difficult to know what opportunities Carvalhal was referring to afterwards when he talked about his team creating plenty of chances.
Swansea’s best moment came at the start of the second half and that was down to a piece of individual inspiration from Jordan Ayew. Twisting and turning to wriggle clear of a couple of Southampton players, Ayew cut inside and unleashed a 25-yard dipping shot that looked to be arcing into the top corner until Alex McCarthy, stretching every sinew, got a hand to the ball to superbly flick it over the bar.
Southampton were starting to look more and more menacing. Austin had forced Fabianski to make two saves before half-time and another couple of attempts from the same player highlighted the visitors’ growing threat.
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Desperate for a goal, Carvalhal introduced Tammy Abraham, but it was the change made by Hughes that did the trick as Gabbiadini, who has endured a difficult season, joined Long and Austin in a three-pronged attack.
All three were involved in that defining moment and, although it will never make a contender for goal of the season, it could well go down as the most important.