Built on Saints
To celebrate the 20th anniversary of our much-loved home, Graham Hiley tells the tale of the stadium’s most memorable Southampton victories.
Saints 2-1 Inter Milan
3rd November 2016
It was the greatest European night in Southampton’s history as they came from behind to humble the mighty Inter Milan.
Nobody lucky enough to be at St Mary’s will ever forget the pounding, pulsating atmosphere as Claude Puel’s men took on one of the biggest names in world football and totally outplayed them.
The fact that Saints had taken around 7,000 fans to the San Siro a fortnight earlier showed what it meant just to be drawn against the Italian icons in the same Europa League group.
Although that game had ended in a brave 1-0 defeat, the south-coast side deserved at least a point, possibly more, as they matched Frank de Boer’s team in their awe-inspiring arena.
By the time the eagerly-anticipated return fixture came round, de Boer had been sacked after just 85 days in charge and with his team languishing in 12th place in Serie A on the back of four defeats in five.
The interim replacement was youth team coach Stefano Vecchi who brought the entire squad – even those ineligible to play – in a bid to rebuild the damaged morale.
He went all out, fielding his strongest available line-up in a bid to stake a claim for the job. By contrast, Puel rotated his squad, leaving out Charlie Austin, Ryan Bertrand and José Fonte to the surprise of many given it was such a landmark occasion.
It was a fixture which confirmed Southampton’s return to the top table. After the long struggle to recover from two relegations and administration, this was a fixture to savour, a mark of their long and determined climb back to the big time.
There was a buzz around the stadium well before kick-off (and not just because of rumours of a Far East takeover) as fans savoured the prospect of their side doing battle with the Italian giants. They might not have been the force they once were, but their very name sent shivers down the spine.
Enter Inter… the atmosphere was electric and Saints responded by tearing into their illustrious opponents from the start with Jay Rodriguez heading just wide in the first minute.
He then curled a shot just over and had a powerful drive well saved by Samir Handanović before the visitors took the lead against the run of play on 33 minutes.
Danilo D’Ambrosio wrestled Virgil van Dijk to the ground where he remained in protest while Antonio Candreva drilled low across the face of goal. Ivan Perišić saw his shot blocked by Cuco Martina but Mauro Icardi followed up to fire home.
Saints were handed a golden chance to get level in the dying seconds of the first half when Perišić was, perhaps harshly, judged to have handled as the ball bobbled up onto his elbow.
Amid furious Italian protests – and possible attempts to scuff the penalty spot – Sam McQueen appeared to be elbowed in the face by Candreva. It was not seen clearly by referee Pawel Gil who hedged his bets and showed only a yellow card to the fury of the home fans.
The distraction tactics paid off as Dušan Tadić telegraphed a poor penalty, giving the keeper a relatively comfortable save with his legs to his left.
It did have the effect of getting Saints even more fired up and they ripped into the visitors with renewed vigour after the break. Handanović made superb fingertip stops from a long-range blast from James Ward-Prowse and then a bullet header from van Dijk.
From the resulting corner on 64 minutes, Oriol Romeu hooked against the bar and the ball dropped for van Dijk to force home from close range. Five minutes later Saints were in front amid an explosion of noise as Inter folded under an intense onslaught.
A left-wing cross by Tadić took a slight deflection but still should have been no problem for Yuto Nagatomo. But the Italians had lost all their composure as the rampant home side piled forward and the ball bounced off his thigh and into his own net.
The visitors were shell-shocked by the quick-fire salvo and they never looked like getting back into it as Southampton held firm for a famous victory.
Puel said: “It was important for our fans to win, especially as thousands of them came for the first game against Inter in Milan, and it was fantastic.
“I am happy for all the fans and players. It was a very good game with a good result. It is a fantastic scenario. It was difficult at the beginning. We dominated all the game but we lost a goal and missed a penalty. But we did very good work.
"We knew how important it was to win tonight. It is a good result but we are not finished yet. We want to qualify. The work is not finished.”
The win put them four points clear of Inter and three ahead of Hapoel, which should have been enough for Puel’s men to progress. Certainly, if anyone had said that Saints would finish ahead of the Nerazzurri in the group then it would have been assumed they would qualify.
In the end both missed out on the knockout stages but nothing could ever diminish the historic achievement of beating one of the giants of the game in such electrifying fashion on a special night which will live long in the memory.
Saints: Forster, Martina, Yoshida, van Dijk, McQueen, Romeu, Ward-Prowse, Højbjerg, Tadić (Davis 77), Redmond, Rodriguez (Austin 59). Subs: Lewis, Fonte, Bertrand, Clasie, Boufal.
Inter Milan: Handanović, D'Ambrosio, Miranda, Ranocchia, Nagatomo, Candreva (Biabiany 89), Medel (Eder 74), Gnoukouri (Melo 82), Perišić, Banega, Icardi. Subs: Carrizo, Ansaldi, Santon, Murillo.
Referee: Pawel Gil