Valiant Southampton were narrowly beaten for the first time in seven league games, but it wasn’t all plain sailing for the league leaders at Old Trafford.
Saints couldn’t have got off to a better start in Mauricio Pochettino’s first away match in charge, taking the lead in a pulsating opening, with their first attack of the game. A loose pass from Michael Carrick towards ‘keeper David De Gea was pounced upon by Jay Rodriguez, who slotted home his sixth goal of the season with barely three minutes on the watch.
United, who had won their last seven matches against Saints in all competitions, were back on level terms little more than six minutes later, when Wayne Rooney struck the first of his two goals on the night by taking full advantage of Shinji Kagawa’s excellent throughball.
The England hitman completed his double with a tap in before the half hour mark, but if United expected to see out the game in comfort, they were in for a shock.
A terrific second half performance from a dominating Saints side pushed Sir Alex Ferguson’s men to the limit, forcing a double defensive substitution on the home side which owed much to the sustained pressure from the visitors.
Artur Boruc was called into action on a handful of occasions, but the defeat still appeared unfortunate for Saints who remain clear of the bottom three despite the loss, and travel to 18th placed Wigan Athletic on Saturday with a chance to extend that gap.
Man Utd: De Gea, Evra, Jones, Smalling (Ferdinand 64), Vidic, Anderson (Rafael 68), Kagawa (Nani 74), Carrick, Welbeck, Van Persie, Rooney. Subs (not used): Lindegaard, Cleverley, Buttner, Valencia.
Saints: Boruc, Clyne, Yoshida, Hooiveld, Fox (Shaw 78), Puncheon (S. Davis 46), Cork, Schneiderlin, Rodriguez, Ramirez (Lallana 46), Lambert. Subs (not used): K. Davis, Lee, Richardson, Chaplow.
Referee: Lee Mason
Adam Lallana returned to the squad and was named amongst the substitutes. Danny Fox was recalled at left back with Luke Shaw dropping to the bench. There’s was a recall for Jay Rodriguez too as Guly missed out through injury.
Hosts Manchester United got the contest underway with Southampton, in a changed strip of yellow and blue, attacking the Stretford End backed by a vocal pocket of Saints supporters in a corner behind them.
Both teams set their stalls out to play a possession game, but there was little time to acclimatise as a blistering opening was made to the match with a couple of early goals registered.
It was a fine start from an unfazed visiting team who pounced quickly by maintaining their positive start to the match with a strike inside the opening three minutes of action.
Morgan Schneiderlin’s controlled pass down the left flank was intercepted by Michael Carrick, but a loose pass from the United midfielder released Jay RODRIGUEZ into the area, and the quick-thinking striker beat the onrushing David De Gea to the ball, to poke home from an acute angle.
However, the lead lasted just six minutes as the hosts conjured up a slick attack of their own with England forward Wayne ROONEY at the heart of it.
His link up with Shinji Kagawa caught the Saints defence flat, for the striker to finish with a cool shot past Artur Boruc inside the area,
United’s tails were up and Kagawa almost turned the game on its head moments later when he crashed a shot against the left post on the back of a Phil Jones cross into the box.
The contest continued to flow from end to end though with Pochettino’s men responding through a couple of free-kicks, one from Lambert that was deflected wide, and another from Ramirez which cleared the crossbar.
United striker Robin van Persie, had been quiet in the early stages, but came close to putting the hosts infront when his wildly deflected shot after cutting in from the right hand side, crept over the top of the bar.
As it became clear, the Dutchman was only warming up. On 28 Van Persie’s devilishly whipped free-kick to the far post was headed back across goal by Patrice Evra into the path of ROONEY who was on hand to tap home for the easiest goal he’ll ever get, to make it 2-1.
Van Perise blazed over from Kagawa’s assist as the clock ticked over the half hour, with United looking to add to their lead, but brief moments of class aside –with Welbeck now also involved- the hosts were pressured into mistakes by Saints.
Crucially though they remained solid in defence, with United’s formidable backline restricting the visitors time and time again. Lambert twice caused problems from corners, going closes to the target through the former effort which saw his header from a deep Schneiderlin corner clear the top of De Gea’s goal.
In the closing stages of the half, Schneiderlin picked up Saints’ first booking, as he was called back for a tug on Carrick, but despite trailing at the interval, there were plenty of encouraging signs for Pochettino to draw upon for the second 45.
Half Time: Man Utd 2-1 Saints
Pochettino made an early double substitution at the start of the new half with Lallana and Steven Davis coming on in place of Ramirez and Puncheon, in a bid to rejuvenate Saints’ attacking options.
On 50 Lambert lined up an ambitious volley on the back of a loose clearance, but De Gea got down to keep the ball out low to his left.
The pressure intensified with Lallana cleverly flicking a corner with the outside of his boot, narrowly over the bar, before Lambert unleashed another long drive which again went just over.
The tide continued to crash forward from the visitors as they rattled Alex Ferguson’s men by stretching the play and bombarding them down either flank.
After a succession of corners that were hastily cleared, Steven Davis blasted a low drive wide as Saints threatened once more, and Lambert almost embarrassed De Gea with a stinging free-kick that the hosts were fortunate not to concede from.
The obvious concern from the home side saw Rio Ferdinand brought on in place of Chris Smalling in the 64th minute, and with full back Rafael following him onto the pitch in place of midfielder Anderson, Saints clearly had their opponents more than a touch worried.
Rodriguez flashed a strike from Lambert’s knockdown narrowly over the top, before further prolonged possession from the yellow shirts, forced United to come back at them.
Boruc saved low from Rooney, but again Saints responded with Clyne forcing another corner that the hosts failed to clear with any conviction.
United’s final change saw Kagawa withdrawn in favour of Portuguese winger Nani with just over a quarter of an hour still to play, and soon after, Van Persie had the ball in the net with a header form Rooney’s cross, but the effort was ruled out for offside.
Moments earlier, Boruc had produced a marvellous stop to deny the Dutchman, who was remained thwarted in his attempts to get on the scoresheet.
On 78 Lambert had another free-kick go close, this time he forced De Gea into a terrific low save after Rodriguez had been fouled right on the edge of the area.
Luke Shaw replaced Fox in Saints’ final change of the contest, with the visitors still working their socks off to try and force a leveller.
Boruc was called upon to make a fine low save to deny Rooney a hat-trick when faced with the Pole one-on-one in the box, setting up a dramatic end to the game with the home side’s slender advantage looking precarious.
Saints turned the screw, with Shaw and Lallana teaming up on the left to produce an opportunity for Schneiderlin, who shot over with a rising effort, before the same combination found Lambert in the box, but no-one could get on the end of his knockdown.
The match concluded with Southampton firmly camped in their opponents’ half, but a deserved equaliser was the only thing missing from a spirited performance at the Theatre of dreams
Full Time: Man Utd 2-1 Saints