Southampton began their 2020/21 Premier League season in rusty fashion with a 1-0 loss to Crystal Palace on Saturday afternoon.
Saints created a few good opportunities in the second-half but looked a different team to the one that ended 2019/20 so well and Wilfried Zaha’s calmly taken volley proved to be the match-winner in the opening game for the hosts at Selhurst Park.
Ahead of the game, it was unclear who Ralph Hasenhuttl would call on to replace the injured Stuart Armstrong in his starting line-up. Will Smallbone was the player chosen to fill in and would take up the attacking-midfield role on the right flank.
Crystal Palace had been plagued by injuries in the lead up to this game and had to field a makeshift back-line including midfielder Cheikhou Kouyate as a result with seven first-team regulars unavailable.
Saints started confidently and had some strong spells of possession. Jack Stephens went close to breaking the deadlock early on when he tested Vicente Guaita with a header from a corner, but Saints soon found themselves behind after a quick counter from Palace.
After winning the ball in midfield and seeing Saints pushed high and wide, the hosts sprung forward. Andros Townsend won his footrace with Oriol Romeu to get to the byline and expertly picked out Wilfried Zaha at the back post for a controlled, side-footed finish past Alex McCarthy.
This goal gave Palace the upper-hand in the first-half and allowed them to defend deep and break when possible. Saints, on the other hand, could not find a way through to create another meaningful chance before the break.
It was therefore important for a quick start to the second period and things looked much more lively almost straight away.
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A neat move involving Kyle Walker-Peters, Danny Ings, Che Adams and Nathan Redmond saw the latter presented with a good opening for a shot on goal but the winger’s strike lacked the required power find the net.
Then on 50 minutes, it seemed as though Saints would be further up against it when Kyle Walker-Peters was shown a straight red card for a high challenge. What came next though was a sign of a major improvement in the use of VAR this season.
Referee John Moss rescinded the red and instead showed a yellow card after watching the incident on the pitchside monitor. Television replays did show that Walker-Peters made a conscious effort to lower and bend his leg before making unintentional contact with Palace defender Tyrick Mitchell.
11 men remaining on the pitch allowed Saints to maintain their efforts at getting back into the contest and Che Adams thought he had his and his team’s first goal of the season when he struck an open shot hard at the target.
However, Guaita was equal to it again – a theme that would continue throughout the afternoon as well as Saints struggling to break down resolute defensive lines from Palace.
James Ward-Prowse went on to have two wayward efforts from direct free-kicks and Danny Ings had a stoppage-time header excellently saved as the visitors to Selhurst Park ultimately came away with nothing on the opening day. Things will surely improve as the players get more game time under their belts.
What made Saints so good at the back end of last season was players in each position knowing exactly where to be to put in that goal saving block or to create a chance for Ings and Adams, and that just was not there on Saturday afternoon – perhaps a sign of a shortened pre-season affecting preparations and that we will see the real Ralph Hasenhuttl side emerge in the coming weeks.
Crystal Palace line-up
Vicente Guaita, Joel Ward, Scott Dann, Cheikhou Kouyate, Tyrick Mitchell, James McArthur, James McCarthy (Luka Milivojevic 74), Andros Townsend, Jeffrey Schlupp (Eberechi Eze 81), Jordan Ayew, Wilfried Zaha
Subs not used: Wayne Hennessey, Martin Kelly, Sam Woods, Max Meyer, Michy Batshuayi
Alex McCarthy, Kyle Walker-Peters, Jack Stephens, Jan Bednarek (Jannik Vestergaard 45), Ryan Bertrand, Oriol Romeu, James Ward-Prowse, Will Smallbone (Moussa Djenepo 77), Nathan Redmond, Danny Ings, Che Adams (Shane Long 85)
Subs not used: Fraser Forster, Jake Vokins, Nathan Tella, Michael Obafemi