Southampton vs Sparta Prague match report: Charlie Austin bags a brace as Saints triumph in Europa League opener
A brace from Charlie Austin gave Claude Puel his first win as Southampton manager and the Saints a perfect start to their Europa League campaign.
Austin’s first half goals against Sparta Prague, his first for the club in 303 minutes since coming off the bench to score the winner with almost his first touch at Old Trafford last season, saw the Premier League club run out worthy winners against their Czech counterparts.
The night began perfectly for Puel with Saints one up inside five minutes.
Manuel Grafe had turned down Charlie Austin’s appeal for a penalty after the ball had struck Costa’s arm but the official behind the goal indicated the offence and Southampton had their chance.
After stand-in captain Virgil Van Dijk had hauled an unhappy Dusan Tadic away from the penalty, Austin confidently stroked the ball to the goalkeeper’s right to give Saints the edge.
Puel’s men seemed desperate to make the most of their maiden voyage into the group stages of this competition and both Van Dijk and Austin came close to extending their lead in the first 20 minutes.
Puel, who reached the semi-finals of the Champions League when Lyon manager in 2010, had made seven changes to the side which lost to a last minute Santi Cazorla penalty at Arsenal on Saturday but Sparta did not prove stiff opposition.
The Czechs have had success in the Europa League, reaching the quarter-final last season where they were beaten by Villarreal, but their record against English sides is poor.
Their night almost got worse as Austin stooped to head in Cuco Martina’s cross but the linesman adjudged him offside. Moments later though, the same pair combined and this time Austin found space at the far post to head back across goal via Tomas Koubak’s left-hand and put Southampton two up.
Martina was causing huge problems down Sparta’s left and his superb curled pass almost let in Shane Long for a third but the ball just evaded the Irishman’s outstretched leg.
It didn’t make for much of a spectacle but Puel, who favours a patient, possession-based approach, will have been pleased with the way his players killed the game in the second half.
Despite the introduction of talismanic striker David Lafata at half-time, Prague were afforded no opportunities by a Southampton defence well-marshalled by former Celtic player Van Dijk.
Their only opening came when Matt Targett and James Ward-Prowse lost possession in midfield to allow Lafata a fierce drive at goal which Fraser Forster pushed to his right.
But the occasion, if not the game, was one to remember for Southampton who have been on an irrepressible rise over the past seven seasons: ‘we are Southampton, we’ve come from League One,’ sang their supporters.
Their night was completed with a third goal as substitute Jay Rodriguez converted Long’s pass into the bottom right corner from six yards out.
Providing Puel can take this type of form into Southampton’s stuttering Premier League beginning, it could yet be another memorable campaign on the South Coast.
Southampton (4-1-2-1-2): Forster; Martina, Van Dijk, Yoshida, Targett; Romeu (Davis 83); Ward-Prowse, Højbjerg; Tadic (Redmond 70); Long, Austin (Rodriguez 76).
Subs: McCarthy, Clasie, Fonte, Bertrand.
Sparta Prague (3-5-2): Koubek; Holek, Costa, M Kadlec; Karavaev, Frydek, Såcek, Vacha (Marecek 64), Sural (Pulkrab 74); V Kadlec, Julis (Lafata 45).
Subs: Bicik, Mazuch, Cermak, Holzer.
Booked: V Kadlec, Pulkrab
Referee: Manuel Gråfe (Germany)