Southampton sign off in ideal fashion to end superb season
Southampton 4 Crystal Palace 1
Just another win. Just another European adventure to look forward to. Just another sparkling season in the life of Southampton Football Club. They signed it off in ideal fashion, sweeping aside a Crystal Palace side distracted by next Saturday's FA Cup Final against Manchester United.
It was enough to secure Europa League qualification ahead of West Ham, and the final whistle at Stoke was celebrated as raucously as any of the four Southampton goals.
A poor first half of the season has given way to a glorious spring: if the league had started at New Year, Ronald Koeman's team would be second.
For Koeman's opposite number Alan Pardew, it was a frustrating afternoon.
Having rested several first-team players and challenged their replacements to stake a claim for a Wembley place, few did. Emmanuel Adebayor drifted through the game. James McArthur has only completed 90 minutes once in four months and looked off the pace. Dwight Gayle worked hard but missed a crucial chance.
It was Julian Speroni, however, who fared worst. Pardew had decided to throw in the 36-year-old. But the Argentinian had a poor afternoon, at fault for the crucial first goal and transmitting uncertainty to the rest of the defence.
"He wasn't magnificent today," Pardew admitted.
"I felt sorry for him."
The game had been fairly even until Speroni flapped at a cross from Ryan Bertrand. Sadio Mane lifted the loose ball into an empty net, and from that moment Palace were always playing catch-up. Graziano Pelle headed Southampton 2-0 ahead on the hour, and made a beeline for Koeman on the touchline. And as the entire team embraced their manager, it was hard not to interpret it as their own very public tribute to a manager who has been linked with a move to Everton this summer.
Jason Puncheon pulled a goal back almost immediately, but Palace were still vulnerable to Southampton's pace.
A Ryan Bertrand penalty restored the Saints' advantage as Palace looked to conserve their bodies for Wembley, before an emphatic finish from Steven Davis rounded out the scoring.