Southampton solid at the back as Europa League run continues
Saints happy to be in Europe as new-look defence sends Premier League warning with another clean sheet
By Steve Hoare
Vitesse 0 Southampton 2. Southampton might have lost centre-back Toby Alderweireld to Tottenham, right-back Nathaniel Clyne to Liverpool plus goalkeeper Fraser Forster and left-back Ryan Bertrand to injury but the Premier League's second-meanest defence proved it has strength in depth as Saints beat Vitesse 0-2 to qualify for the next round of the Europa League.
Dutch side Vitesse and their army of Chelsea loanees dominated possession but were unable to break down a Saints defence featuring two debutants in the shape of former Tottenham and England centre-half Steven Caulker and Curacao international Cuco Martino.
Caulker has endured successive relegations since his Tottenham days, going down with Cardiff City and QPR, but he made three vital blocks as he began his efforts to kick start a career that has been going downhill fast. But with Saints captain and defensive organiser Jose Fonte alongside him and midfield shield Victor Wanayama in front of him, Caulker can look forward to a better season.
Caulker will also learn from the experience of one of the game's greatest centre-halves, manager Ronald Koeman, as he attempts to remind England boss Roy Hodgson of his worth. The Dutch legend did not look like he was enjoying this match, possibly because he was on crutches after rupturing his achilles in training, but he would have been pleased with a defensive performance that left Vitesse with very few opportunities to make inroads on the three-goal first leg deficit.
Vitesse were always struggling after Saints striker Graziano Pelle opened the scoring after just four minutes. His cool strike after the ball bobbled to him off James Ward-Prowse left the Dutch side needing five.
Albanian 19-year-old Milot Rashica inspired Vitesse's brightest moments but his best efforts were foiled either by the hands of Saints' Dutch keeper Maarten Stekelenburg or the feet of Caulker.
The match might have been a foregone conclusion from the fourth minute but the Vitesse fans, who made their presence felt at St Mary's in the first leg, sang on. The travelling Saints fans weren't quiet either and in the 72nd minute they reserved one of their loudest cheers for the return of Jay Rodriguez after 16 months out injured.
With Saints happy to cede possession, Rodriguez had little chance to make an impact but showed his quality with a 20-yard pile-driver, which displayed all the dip and power of a Cristiano Ronaldo free-kick.
Sadio Mane was Saints' hero in the first leg but did little in this match before applying the gloss in the 88th minute. Chelsea loanee Danilo Pantic sloppily gave the ball away to Mane, and the Senegalese striker beat the last defender before firing home.
Saints now enter the 44-team draw for a final playoff and victory would see them through to the group stages of the competition. While many Premier League clubs see the Europa League as a poisoned chalice, nobody in Southampton is complaining. Assistant manager Edwin Koeman said afterward: "Football is not sleeping. Football is living every day and tomorrow we travel and we train again and before you know it, it is Sunday. You don't complain, you are happy that you play Europa League and are happy to start in the Premier League."