Koe­man en­joys the de­vo­tion of St Mary’s

The Daily Telegraph - Total Football - - TOTAL FOOTBALL - By Jonathan Liew at St Mary’s

Just an­other win. Just an­other Euro­pean ad­ven­ture to look for­ward to. Just an­other sparkling sea­son in the life of Southamp­ton FC. They signed it off in ideal fash­ion, sweep­ing aside a Crys­tal Palace side only par­tially dis­tracted by next Satur­day’s FA Cup fi­nal against Manchester United. And 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.

It is the sort of suc­cess that has be­come stun­ningly rou­tine for the fans at St Mary’s. 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 in the league.

“Maybe every­body was a lit­tle bit wor­ried that it was the sea­son to fight against rel­e­ga­tion,” the Saints’ Dutch man­ager said. “But we turned it around. That’s al­ways up to the play­ers.”

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 of them did. Em­manuel Ade­bayor drifted through the game, James McArthur has com­pleted only 90 min­utes once in four months and looked off the pace, and Dwight Gayle worked hard but missed a cru­cial chance.

But it was Julián Sper­oni, how­ever, who fared worst. Sen­ti­ment had per­suaded Pardew to throw in the 36-year-old, who needed just one more ap­pear­ance to equal the club record of 388 for a goal­keeper. How­ever, the Ar­gen­tine had a poor af­ter­noon, at fault for the first goal and trans­mit­ting un­cer­tainty to the rest of the de­fence. “He wasn’t mag­nif­i­cent to­day,” Pardew said. “I felt sorry for him.” The game was fairly even un­til Sper­oni came and flapped at a Ryan Ber­trand cross, leav­ing Sa­dio Mané to lift the loose ball into an empty net just be­fore the break. Graziano Pellè headed Saints 2-0 ahead on the hour, and made a bee­line for Koe­man. And, as the en­tire team em­braced their man­ager, it was hard not to in­ter­pret it as their own, very pub­lic trib­ute to a man­ager linked with a sum­mer move to Ever­ton. “Of course, I would like to stay here,” Koe­man said after­wards. “I still have one year of my con­tract.”

Ja­son Pun­cheon pulled a goal back al­most im­me­di­ately, a stun­ning left-footed strike, but Palace were al­ways vul­ner­a­ble to Southamp­ton’s pace, and when Mané pow­ered past Adrian Mari­appa and Pape Souaré, the only real op­tion was to bring him down. Af­ter con­sult­ing his as­sis­tant, ref­eree Michael Oliver de­cided the foul was in the area, and Ber­trand smashed home the penalty.

Com­pet­i­tive would be a char­i­ta­ble way to de­scribe the fi­nal stages. Southamp­ton could have scored a few more. They made do with just one, an em­phatic fin­ish from close range by Steven Davis af­ter Palace failed to deal with an­other cross.

Southamp­ton can fin­ish no lower than sixth, fifth if United lose to Bournemouth.

As Koe­man joined the team on their lap of honour, the fans ser­e­naded him with chants and songs. He will dis­cuss his fu­ture with the club next week, and yet it seemed ridicu­lous to think this might be his last game in charge. How could he turn his back on this club, this de­vo­tion, these fans?

At Southamp­ton their love for Koe­man is strong and faith­ful, and – like this sea­son – they do not want it to end.

Sun­shine boys: Sa­dio Mané cel­e­brates his open­ing goal as Southamp­ton se­cure their best ever fin­ish in the Premier League

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