A Rickie Lambert penalty was enough for Southampton to beat Aston Villa 1-0 at Villa Park in the Premier League, sending Paul Lambert's side plummeting into the relegation zone.
Having started in the ascendancy and then faded, Aston Villa fell behind just after the half hour mark to a contentious penalty as the Saints took a slender lead to the interval.
The Villans began the second period again on top but Southampton could have doubled their advantage through Jason Puncheon before a late flurry of activity saw Villa close to salvaging a draw only for Nathan Baker's header to come back off the bar as their dire Premier League run continues.
Villa find themselves in the throes of a mid-season crisis and Lambert must turn things around quickly to salvage what has been a tumultuous campaign that hit new lows following the first-leg semi-final defeat at the hands of Bradford City on Tuesday night.
Having conceded 21 goals in their last six games, many of Villa’s problems lie in their vulnerability at the back but Lambert had captain Ron Vlaar back in the matchday squad for the visit of Nigel Adkins' Southampton.
Despite being a point and a place behind their hosts, the Saints have been on a cautious rise since their last trip to the Midlands ended in a two goal reverse at the hands of West Bromwich Albion on November 5.
They had conceded nine goals in the subsequent 10 games, losing just two, and were buoyed by the return of record signing Gaston Ramirez for this relegation six-pointer.
There was much industry but little invention early on. Neither set of forwards was afforded any kind of quality service but Christian Benteke manage to fashion two early sights of goal from scraps but without threatening the scoreline.
Villa's early intensity gave them territory but little penetration, and they might have been vulnerable on the break if Southampton had devoted more players to attack. However, the one time the Saints did commit men forward they were to score.
It was a contentious decision as there appeared to be no contact on Jay Rodriguez from Enda Stevens but Mark Halsey, partially unsighted, pointed to the spot allowing Rickie Lambert to make it a record of 29 goals from 29 penalties with 34 minutes gone.
Villa only had themselves to blame for the concession of the penalty as Fabian Delph’s abject attempt at a clearance eventually fell between Stevens and Rodriguez, with the former Burnley man going taking his opportunity to make the most of a wild attempt at a challenge from the Irishman to win the penalty.
Brett Holman looked for an immediate riposte but his effort was charged down as the Saints played out the rest of the half with relative ease. The home side emerged from the interval with a far greater sense of purpose and Benteke hit the bar from close range after pouncing on a rebound.
But just as with the first-half, Paul Lambert’s men began to cede the initiative and Southampton could have gone two up but Puncheon’s effort from just inside the box came back off the post with a little over 68 minutes on the clock.
The Saints managed to keep their hosts at arm’s length for much of the remainder of the match but Paul Lambert will be at a loss as to how his side didn’t finish the game with a share of the spoils.
First Baker’s header came back off the bar before Benteke followed up a brave Artur Boruc save to side-foot wide of the post from the edge of the box with the goal at his mercy.
MAN OF THE MATCH:
Jason Puncheon, Southampton: Caused havoc all afternoon with his direct running and was unlucky not to cap a great performance with a goal when his effort came back off the post..
Aston Villa: Guzan 5, Clark 5, Stevens 5, Baker 5, Lowton 5, Holman 5, Weimann 6, Westwood 6, Delph 5, N’Zogbia 5, Benteke 5. Subs: Agbonlahor 5, Bowery 5, Bannan 5.
Southampton: Boruc 6, Yoshida 6, Hooiveld 6, Shaw 6, Clyne 6, Cork 6, Schneiderlin 5, Puncheon 7, Ramirez 6, Rodriguez 6, Lambert 6. Subs: S Davis 5, Fox 5, De Ridder 5.