REPORT: Southampton 3-0 Sparta Praha

Saints got their UEFA Europa League campaign off to a superb start with a 3-0 win over Czech side Sparta Praha, and went a long way to banishing the ghosts of last season’s miserable play-off exit to FC Midtjylland.

The result sees Claude Puel’s men flying high in Group K and, although it is only at the end of matchday one, it is nonetheless a sight to savour.

The hero of the night for Saints was undoubtedly Charlie Austin, proving once again how much he enjoys a debut.

After netting the winner within seven minutes of his Premier League bow for the club, away to Manchester United last season, he was on the scoresheet inside five minutes of his first European appearance for them, before heading a second goal shortly before the half-hour mark. Jay Rodriguez then wrapped things up in added time for the hosts.

Puel made seven changes from the side that lost 2-1 away to Arsenal last weekend, as Cuco Martina, Maya Yoshida, Matt Targett, Pierre-Emile Højbjerg, James Ward-Prowse, Shane Long and Austin all came in.

With José Fonte and Steven Davis among those who dropped to the bench, it meant Virgil van Dijk took the captain’s armband for the first European contest of the season.

There was a real buzz outside St Mary’s ahead of kick-off, added to by the visiting Sparta fans who, although short on numbers, certainly weren’t on noise.

It was the home fans who had reason to cheer loudest in the early stages, however, as they watched their side go in front within five minutes.

Pierre-Emile Højbjerg’s pass down the inside-right picked out Austin in space, and his cross hit the arm of a sliding Costa Nhamoinesu, just inside the confines of the area.

It took referee Manuel Gräfe and his officials an exceptionally long time to make the decision to award a penalty – something that will have done little to improve Sparta’s opinion of the call – but he did eventually point to the spot.

A debate between Austin and Dušan Tadić then ensued about who would take the spot kick, with Austin eventually winning out, before dispatching a low shot into the bottom corner for his second goal in a Saints shirt.

Austin had the ball in the net again in the 26th minute, heading in a superb cross from the right by Martina, but he was judged offside and had the effort chalked off.

It didn’t matter, though, as less than a minute later the pair combined again for the second goal.

Martina’s first cross from the right was blocked, but the ball rebounded to him and he sent a beautiful, arcing delivery with the outside of his foot towards the back post, where Austin’s header towards the far corner had enough on it to beat Tomáš Koubek in the Sparta goal.

Saints comfortably kept hold of that advantage through to the interval, and they began the second half on the front foot as well, with Tadić testing Koubek with a low, angled strike in the early stages.

The hosts were finding plenty of space in midfield, and they continued to probe away at the Sparta backline, while Fraser Forster passed the hour mark in goal without being seriously tested.

That changed in the 68th minute, however, when substitute David Lafata – the Czech side’s top scorer – fired in a fierce half-volley from 20 yards, which the Saints keeper parried away superbly.

Puel then made his first substitution of the night, removing Tadić and sending on Nathan Redmond, before Austin received a standing ovation when he was replaced by Rodriguez.

Oriol Romeu was the first man into the book, being carded for a hefty challenge on Michal Sáček in the 78th minute, prompting Puel to remove him for Davis.

Yoshida had a strong shout for a penalty turned down inside the final ten minutes, as he was shoved in the back by Mario Holek while challenging for a high ball in the area, before Long went close with a curling effort from the corner of the area in the 89th minute.

The third goal did finally arrive in the second minute of added time, as Saints broke forward and Long played a square pass into the area for Rodriguez, who coolly side-footed into the bottom corner for his second of the season.

It was the perfect way to finish a wonderful night for Southampton, whose Europa League campaign is up and running in some fashion.

Southampton: Fraser Forster, Cuco Martina, Virgil van Dijk (C), Maya Yoshida, Matt Targett, Pierre-Emile Højbjerg, James Ward-Prowse, Oriol Romeu (Steven Davis 83), Shane Long, Dušan Tadić (Nathan Redmond 70), Charlie Austin (Jay Rodriguez 76).

Unused substitutes: Alex McCarthy (GK), Ryan Bertrand, José Fonte, Jordy Clasie.

Booked: Romeu

Goals: Austin (5 pen, 27), Rodriguez (90+2)

Sparta Praha: Tomáš Koubek, Viacheslav Karavaev, Mario Holek (C), Costa Nhamoinesu, Michal Kadlec, Lukáš Vácha (Lukáš Mareček 64), Josef Šural (Matej Pulkrab 74), Michal Sáček, Václav Kadlec, Martin Frydek, Lukas Julis (David Lafata 46).

Unused substitutes: David Bičik (GK), Ondrej Mazuch, Aleš Čermák, Daniel Holzer.

Booked: Pulkrab

Referee: Manuel Gräfe (GER)

Attendance: 25,125

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