Southampton manager Claude Puel dismissed suggestions his team is too nice despite their passive performance in their 1-0 Europa League defeat at Sparta Prague.
On an evening they hoped to secure their progress to the competition’s knockout stages, they conceded an 11th-minute goal and rarely looked capable of the comeback that would have earned them first place in Group K.
Puel’s team have won only two of their past eight fixtures and there is no suspicion they are short of talent. The manager has already discussed their need to be more clinical in front of goal, but on this occasion there was also a lack of aggression.
His predecessor Ronald Koeman and players Victor Wanyama and Sadio Mane were among those to leave during the summer and each possessed a ruthless streak. Their replacements may play more attractive football, yet that has counted for little amid a poor run of results.
Asked about his team’s character, Puel responded: “We have all the times the ball. We lost the ball, every time we can recover very quickly with good aggression, a good spirit.
“After a goal, we need to put away our chances. We have all the possibilities with the character and the aggression. We showed this. For me it’s just to find the clinical (streak), to finish our action.”
Sparta’s fourth European victory in succession means they will finish top and be among the seeded teams in the draw for the final 32, but given Southampton had beaten them 3-0 at St Mary’s in September it was surprising that Costa Nhamoinesu’s early finish was enough to defeat them.
Southampton instead must draw 0-0 or win at home to Hapoel Be’er Sheva in December, a disappointing outcome their 2,000 travelling fans voiced when booing them off.
Southampton threatened in only the third minute when Shane Long and Jordy Clasie combined with some one-touch football to put Jay Rodriguez through on goal. Despite both time and space, however, the forward took a heavy touch when a first-time shot would likely have resulted in a goal, and instead wasted a fine chance.
Eight minutes later Costa’s finish at the near post from Borek Dockal’s free-kick continued their fine form since manager Zdenek Scasny was sacked and succeeded on a temporary basis by David Houloubek.
“They had a good play in the pitch which was very difficult,” said Puel, 55, who also spoke of his unhappiness at the condition of the pitch on Wednesday evening.
“[The Hapoel fixtures is] the final for a very hard group. We tried to win. People say to me it was very interesting play in the first half, but the most important thing is to score.
“For the next game it will be important to find solutions and to find the clinical (edge) for our play. We deserve this for all the good things we can do in this competition. We can think about the Inter Milan game (when winning 2-1).
“It’s important to recover and keep the idea clear (of reaching the final 32). We have all our destiny in our hands and this is most important.”