Date: 18th March 2007 at 4:28pm
Written by:

Six weeks ago, Southampton fans surely couldn`t have imagined that their season would have taken such a dramatic turn for the worse by mid-March. A disappointing yet acceptable defeat at Preston was followed by a lifeless display at Stoke and a spineless surrender to Cardiff, but Colchester at home looked to be a way back. Saints faced a side who hadn`t won in six games, as well as having one of the worst away records in the Championship. Three points would have taken Saints back into the playoff mix, but after this humiliating and frustrating performance, only the most optimistic of supporters will be able to see light at the end of the tunnel.

All season the Saints have been threatening to break into the top two or three, without ever really fulfilling their potential. Now the fan base feels cheated, since August the playoffs had been seen as the bare minimum, the fall back, the safety net. Now the Saints are desperately grasping at them from an unfamiliar eighth position. This is made all the more difficult to swallow as Southampton`s misfiring lineup needn`t be this way. Pele was a revelation in the centre of the pitch, clearing up in front of the back four and feeding the wide players. Now, though, he has been banished to central defence, condemned to partner the faltering captain Claus Lundekvam. Jermaine Wright, whilst playing well occasionally, rarely has a positive impact on proceedings. He keeps the ball moving, has a reasonably good pass completion and hassles and hurries opponents – on a good day. Most of the time, however, he flatters to deceive, doesn`t tackle, doesn`t venture closer than 40 yards from goal and goes missing when we need him most. Friday`s match was one of these games for Wright as the Colchester midfield swallowed him up. Nathan Dyer`s inclusion may well have been more necessary given that Southampton were playing their third game in six days, but Rudi Skacel`s continued exclusion from the side is both a baffling and worrying factor of Southampton`s recent decline.

The game started with the home side nervously misplacing passes, perhaps an indication that the players were all too aware of the implications of failure. Within four minutes Colchester had danced through the Saints` backline and Jamie Cureton slid the ball past Bialkowski from Iwelumo`s pull-back. The Saints almost equalised straight away when Surman was released on the left but his drive was parried wide by the impressive Gerken. Defensive frailties were once again exposed as Cureton was sent through a gaping hole between Claus and Baird. But the former Saints trainee was up-ended by a combination of Baird and Bialkowski as he took the ball wide. Luckily Trevor Kettle gave the home side the benefit of the doubt and ruled that Bialkowski had got a touch on the ball. For the next twenty minutes Southampton played their best football of the match; Wright-Phillips somehow failed to force the ball home from two yards and Guthrie hit a dipping 40 yard volley which was well judged by Gerken as he back-pedalled. From the resulting corner Bale`s header hit ricocheted off the angle and flew clear. Finally the pressure told as Surman mis-controlled but the ball fell to Saganowski who guided the ball home from ten yards.

But any inclination that this was the ‘start of something`, as Mike Osman would say, was soon extinguished as Saints once again contrived to panic when Garcia got to the byline and sent a thoroughly defendable ball to the penalty spot for Cureton to sweep home. How exactly does George Burley not understand that our side is incredibly susceptible to long balls? This must be the manager`s job; fixing problems such as this. It was all too obvious against Coventry and Stoke, and the moment Colchester noticed this vulnerability they began to utilise Iwelumo`s physical attributes. Pele was bullied by the big Scotsman, Claus was equally dominated by the wily Cureton and this combination caused havoc infront Bialkowski. Iwelumo once again shook off Pele but his header floated just wide. Wright-Phillips missed a half-chance to draw the Saints level on the stroke of half-time but Surman`s cross was just too strong. The players were booed off at the break by the lowest league attendance of the season.

The second half was a far worse spectacle than the first, with Colchester holding out reasonably comfortably. Watson and Iwelumo both missed good chances from, believe it or not, free headers before Guthrie`s shot whistled high and wide. Burley finally called upon Rasiak to try to bring some inventiveness to Southampton`s attack and his shot from the edge of the box was well saved by Gerken. With just ten minutes remaining Surman`s shot hit the post and Southampton`s belief faded another notch. Bialkowski made two comfortable saves before Leon Best was twice denied by Gerken late on.

Other results at the top of the table this weekend have gone for the Saints, and the gap is still only 4 points despite Southampton taking just 8 points from their last 8 games. But theworrying thing is that Southampton`s form has dipped so violently. A rediscovery of their old verve and confidence could result in 6th or even 5th place, but Southampton`s form is more that of a relegation threatened club at this point. Burley must instil some self-belief back into his players, bring back Skacel and Rasiak, the men who did so much to propel Saints into a strong position in the first place, and learn from his mistakes. Only then will we have a chance of snatching a playoff place, and if we do that there may well be enough belief amongst players and fans to give the club a chance of success.