Carlos Alcaraz lifts Southampton off bottom and has Leicester looking down
In future, Carlos Alcaraz will probably not be celebrating goals with a knee slide. The 20-year-old Argentinian’s first-half goal could prove vital in Southampton’s fight against relegation but in launching himself across the St Mary’s turf, he endangered his part in the dogfight to come. Victory over Leicester, a toothless team throwing off any pretension of being too good to go down, gives Southampton a fighting chance, but news of Alcaraz’s wounded knee is keenly awaited.
Alcaraz’s goal, created by Che Adams, lifted a game low on quality. It had been low on expectation, too. Both teams were returning to Premier League action after FA Cup defeats to lower-league opposition – Grimsby for Saints, Blackburn for Leicester – categorised as shocking but not entirely surprising.
While Southampton’s slide has taken in the psychodrama of Nathan Jones’s mercifully short reign, Leicester’s slump has been rather less heralded. Kicking off three points above the relegation zone, Brendan Rodgers’ standing among the Foxes faithful diminishes apace, and he was booed by away fans as defeat closed in.
There comes a time when injuries and a relative lack of transfer business no longer sustain as excuses even if Rodgers said he was sympathetic to the complaints. “For the supporters, it’s been a challenge from the first game,” he said. “I respect them, they pay their money but we’re going to need them.”
His team continue to be jarringly over-reliant on James Maddison, fit to start after illness but unable to inspire those around him, supplying a series of crosses a more potent strike force would surely convert; Kelechi Iheanacho missed three presentable chances. Rodgers continued to praise his star man: “He’s a special player. He’s got a great personality. I thought he was outstanding tonight.”
Jamie Vardy was only introduced in the desperate chase for an equaliser that came agonisingly close to completion when Harry Souttar headed Maddison’s cross against the bar in the dying seconds.
“I saw a team working together, suffering together,” said Rubén Sellés, in interim charge of Southampton. The club’s top-division heritage is as endangered as ever during Saints’ current, 11-year tenure.
James Ward-Prowse, the captain, was playing a record 330th Premier League match for Southampton, surpassing Jason Dodd. Ward-Prowse would have his travails, missing a penalty but described victory as “a turning point in our season”. Grimsby, he admitted, was “never near the standard we should be producing”.
Much of the first half was forgettable before Theo Walcott, making a first start since November, still just 33 but with a touch of grey in his beard, burst to the byline and Timothy Castagne handled. Penalty given. Up stepped Ward-Prowse, fluffing his lines on his gala day as Danny Ward saved to his bottom left. “Ultimately the penalty means nothing because they win 1-0,” said a goalkeeper heavily criticised after succeeding Kasper Schmeichel. “We’ve got to try to convert those chances.”
Ward’s save only served to fire up Southampton and after saves from Alcaraz and then Kamaldeen Sulemana, he could not deny Alcaraz, sent through by Adams’ incisive reverse pass. The sliding celebration preceded a lengthy VAR delay. Goal given.
At least Alcaraz’s embarrassment had not happened completely in vain. “Maybe it won’t be something significant,” said Sellés hopefully of a self-inflicted injury that will require a scan. Alcaraz returned for the second period, his knee strapped but departed after just four more minutes, lessons learned the hard way. “I needed to manage better,” said Sellés. “I should have taken him off at half-time.”
Leicester began to benefit from Southampton trying to sit on their lead. Such a strategy had been an abject failure in Jones’ final game, against 10-man Wolves, and Hampshire hackles rose. Alcaraz’s energy was sorely missed.
Adams and Walcott departed in the 63rd minute, the latter receiving warm applause for a committed performance. “I am exhausted,” he said. “I think I can give something and I’ve got more in my legs.” Leicester pushed on, desperate defending keeping them at bay. Wout Faes headed a Maddison corner wide before that fateful Souttar miss.
The celebrating Saints had climbed off the bottom for the first time since before the World Cup. They joined a morass where four points separates seven teams, having dragged down Leicester with them.
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