Mauricio Pochettino’s reign as Southampton manager got off to a mediocre start in a goalless draw at home to Everton in the Premier League.
Former Argentina defender Pochettino has a job to win the fans over following the shock departure of the popular Nigel Adkins, and his side’s first-half performance would have helped as they gave David Moyes’s team the run-around.
The second period was a different affair as the Toffees went on the offensive with the hosts tiring, but both sides missed good chances and were denied by excellent goalkeeping and defending, with a draw the fair result.
Southampton’s second goalless draw in a row keeps them 15th, four points clear of the relegation zone, while Everton stay fifth, three points beyond Tottenham.
The ‘game of two halves’ is as much a cliché as the trigger-happy Mediterranean chairman, but Nicola Cortese had single-handedly turned Southampton into a crisis club this week after the bizarre sacking of Adkins, who had led them to back-to-back promotions and a five-match unbeaten run that placed him 15th before the match.
Aside from clear supporter disquiet, you would not have known there were problems, as the hosts were the better side in the first half.
Everton had a few half-chances, Nikica Jelavic and Sylvain Distin putting headers wide, but Tim Howard was by far the busier keeper as he kept out two efforts from Gaston Ramirez free-kick, and a rising drive from Rickie Lambert – who also hit the post with a fantastic long-range free-kick.
The Everton keeper was helpless on two other occasions as Phil Jagielka deflected Jason Puncheon’s shot wide, while there was a double block on the line as Jelavic and Leighton Baines combined to keep out a Lambert header – Ramirez almost netted the follow-up, but his drive was batted away by Howard.
The Toffees were riding their luck and, just before half-time, the impressive Lambert – named skipper in the absence of Adam Lallana and Jose Fonte – really should have made them pay, unmarked as he rose imperiously to head Puncheon’s fine cross inches wide.
Everton had been poor in the first half, by their standards at least, and an improvement was expected.
They started the second half with a great deal more intent, as Steven Pienaar and Seamus Coleman adopted more advanced positions on the pitch to good effect, combining well to pick out Marouane Fellaini, whose finish was kept out by Artur Boruc.
Fellaini, unusually quiet in the first half, headed straight at Boruc from the resultant corner and, while the Saints were still threatening on the break, the half had begun with a different outlook than the first.
There was a bad miss from the disappointing Jelavic, who somehow failed to convert a brilliant cross from the lively Victor Anichebe, who had come on for the injured Coleman.
Anichebe then forced a marvellous save from Boruc, and set up another sub Kevin Mirallas, but he is lacking match sharpness after a spell out injured and his touch let him down.
Lambert could have snatched a win late on as he met a Puncheon corner with a header that flew narrowly over, while for Everton Steven Naismith felt he should have had an injury-time penalty, although he appeared to slip.
It would have been harsh on Southampton, who deserve credit for their first-half performance but must improve their fitness levels if they are to continue the high-pressing tactic that Pochettino seeks to employ.
Everton, meanwhile, will just be glad that the likes of Fellaini and Mirallas are back playing, with a top-four place still a possibility for Moyes’s overachievers.
MAN OF THE MATCH
Rickie Lambert (Southampton) – Missed some good chances but was denied by the woodwork and a goal-line clearance. Bustling with the ball in the air and gifted on the deck, he is a few yards of pace short of being a top-class striker.
Southampton: Boruc 7, Clyne 6, Yoshida 7, Hooiveld 7, Shaw 7, Puncheon 7, Schneiderlin 7, Cork 6, Guly 6, Ramírez 6, Lambert 7. Subs: S Davis N/A, Rodriguez 6, De Ridder N/A.
Everton: Howard 7, Coleman 7, Baines 6, Jagielka 7, Distin 7, Naismith 6, Pienaar 7, Neville 7, Osman 6, Fellaini 6, Jelavic 5. Subs: Mirallas 6, Anichebe 7.