Shane Long stars in fine Europa League win for Southampton
Southampton 3 Sparta Prague 0
Published 15/09/2016 | 22:08
Southampton made a winning start to their Europa League campaign and gave Claude Puel his first win as manager with a convincing 3-0 defeat of Sparta Prague.
They remain in pursuit of their first Premier League victory of the season but demonstrated their potential with a fine performance at St Mary's to take first place in Group K.
Puel made seven changes to the team that on Saturday lost 2-1 at Arsenal, suggesting he does not consider the competition as important as he insisted when speaking on Wednesday.
He was regardless rewarded, however, with two goals from the recalled Charlie Austin and another from substitute Jay Rodriguez as he continued his comeback from a career-threatening knee injury.
Making only his second start of the season - Austin had been expected to benefit from the departure of Graziano Pelle to China's Shandong Luneng - the striker won a fifth-minute penalty when his low right-wing cross struck unlucky Sparta defender Costa Nhamoinesu's elbow.
A brief argument with Dusan Tadic over who would take it ensued, before he confidently struck into the bottom left corner beyond Tomas Koubek.
It was in the 26th minute when, following positive build-up play from Shane Long and Cuco Martina on the right wing, the former sent a low cross to Austin. The striker dived low to head into the back of the net, but a second goal was rightly disallowed after he strayed just offside.
Out wide and in the final third was where the hosts - owing largely to the diamond formation Puel has introduced - created the majority of their space.
Austin's and Long's rotation and pursuit of width consistently took them beyond Sparta's full-backs, and created another goalscoring opportunity just two minutes after Austin's header was ruled out.
This time Martina's initial cross was blocked, but after he recollected possession he brilliantly sent another ball with the outside of his boot towards Austin, who from directly in front of goal calmly nodded inside the right post via Koubek's hand.
Sparta's greatest first-half threat came when Maya Yoshida's poor back-pass left goalkeeper Fraser Forster under unnecessary pressure. It revealed much about why their last win in England came in 1983, at Watford.
Their manager Zdenek Scasny was still playing and scored the game's only goal that day, and he responded to his team's struggles at St Mary's by introducing David Lafata for Lukas Julis at half-time.
Southampton played with less intensity thereafter - potentially inviting trouble with just a two-goal advantage - but the visitors' threat was again minimal.
Only Lafata had tested Forster with a low shot the goalkeeper dived well to save when Southampton began another attack in stoppage time.
Substitute Rodriguez played a one-two with the classy Long, recollecting possession in front of goal in the area, and comfortably finishing towards the bottom right to secure the three points needed from what might be the easiest of their six Group K games.