Southampton boss Claude Puel insisted he had made the right decision to rest four key players for the clash with Hapoel Be’er Sheva.
He also praised his team for earning what appeared a valuable point following a goalless draw and explained his decision to substitute youngster Jake Hesketh in the 35th minute was because of his concern about the game’s physicality and not the player’s performance.
The combination of the 0-0 stalemate and a 3-1 victory for Sparta Prague over Inter Milan leaves Southampton at the top of Group K and, like second-placed Hapoel, with a total of four points from two games.
They next visit Inter before hosting them back at St Mary’s, but despite Southampton appearing to miss the rested Charlie Austin’s physical presence and the result ending a run of four successive victories, Puel said: “It was important to take some players to keep fresh for a game in two days [in the Premier League against Leicester].
“Israel is very hard, it’s a long journey, a difficult opponent. All my players have done [well] because it’s not easy and it’s not a surprise to see [Hapoel] at this level.
“It was a difficult game and I am happy to take this point. We played a good team, a physical team, a good team tactically.
“It’s a good experience for the future. When we win away at West Ham (last Sunday) and you take one point with the difficulties here with all this travel, the journey, and we go to play now in two days against Leicester.
“It’s very hard and difficult but my team learned. They gave a good answer in difficult conditions.”
Hapoel’s movement and athleticism gave them the greater attacking threat, explaining how they succeeded in unexpectedly winning 2-0 at Inter two weeks ago and allowing them to dominate possession with Southampton’s Ryan Bertrand, Steven Davis and captain Jose Fonte also rested.
The promising Hesketh had recently impressed with his performance and by scoring his first senior goal in the recent EFL Cup defeat to Crystal Palace, but after replacing him with Dusan Tadic in the first half, Puel insisted he was trying to protect the 20-year-old.
“I prefer to change because it was difficult that we didn’t have the ball,” he said. “It was physical and I prefer to protect him and it was for me a tactical problem.
“I have confidence with Jake. When I put him in to start: it’s a young player for the future but it’s important also to protect him and all the players.
“It was difficult but we will see Jake in other games and other moments and it’s not a problem.”