SADIO MANE’S emphatic first half strike was enough to inflict a fourth defeat of the campaign upon the Potters at St. Mary’s on Saturday afternoon.
The Senegalese international rifled home his maiden Premier League strike shortly before the half-time interval to maintain Southampton’s superb start to the 2014/15 Premier League season.
The 22-year old, who joined the Saints from Red Bull Salzburg in the summer, smashed the ball home from 10-yards after Graziano Pelle’s initial strike had cannoned back into his path via the post.
The victory was arguably the home side’s just rewards having dominated the opening 45 minutes of the clash, with the Potters thankful to the woodwork on two further occasions for keeping the scoreline down to one.
Peter Crouch had the visitors’ best opportunity when he headed Phil Bardsley’s dangerous centre over the bar, whilst the introduction of Mame Diouf, Marko Arnautovic and Oussama Assaidi during the second period heralded a far brighter second half showing.
Hughes opted to make two changes to his eleven prior to kick-off with Geoff Cameron being rewarded for his impressive showing against Swansea City with his first league start of the campaign.
The United States star was included at the expense of Stephen Ireland, who missed out entirely, whilst last Sunday’s match-winner Jonathan Walters was recalled to the team – meaning Mame Diouf dropped down to the bench.
The eyes of many were firmly fixated on the south coast ahead of kick-off, with pundits and supporters up and down the country interested to see just how the Saints would follow up their empathic 8-0 thumping of Sunderland.
You could sense the confidence amongst the home players and supporters during the initial exchanges as they looked to build upon their early season form and propel themselves up into the top three of the Premier League.
In fact, that confidence may well have been turned into a first minute lead had summer acquisition Pelle managed to make full contact with the recalled Mane’s delightful ball across goal.
Thankfully for the visitors, the in-form striker guided his effort inches wide of goal, moments before midfielder Steven Davies hammered a 20-yard strike wide of goal after being cleverly picked out by the dangerous Dusan Tadic.
At the other end Walters saw an audacious effort at goal blocked by the brave Jose Fonte, whilst former Southampton man Crouch will have been disappointed not to have hit the target after Phil Bardsley picked the former Southampton star out with an inch-perfect delivery.
Following a reserved start to the game Hughes’ side soon began to flex their muscle and produce some neat and tidy football of their own – with Victor Moses in-particular proving to be a menace to the Saints rear-guard.
The Nigerian international displayed sublime close control and trickery to dance past three defenders 20-minutes in, but when he presented himself with a clear sight at goal his productivity deserted him and ‘keeper Fraser Forster easily gathered his tame strike.
A mid-half lull allowed both sets of players to re-energise themselves after such an energetic start, but it was the home side who looked the stronger as the opening period drew towards its conclusion with both Tadic and Morgan Schneiderlin going close to breaking the deadlock.
Tadic, a £10 million plus signing in the summer, burst down the right, cut inside of Erik Pieters and lashed an effort towards to bottom corner, only for Begovic to produce a moment of magic of his own to tip the ball around the post.
From the resulting corner the Potters backline failed to track the aware Mane, who played a neat-one-two with Tadic, he picked out Schneiderlin who in turn fired a thunderous effort against the crossbar.
There was a real sense within the stadium that an initial breakthrough would be made prior to the interval and it finally arrived in the 35th minute when Mane beat Begovic at the second attempt after the foot of the post had initially come to the Bosnian’s rescue.
The advantage was very nearly doubled five minutes later after Tadic had manoeuvred enough space for himself to deliver a dangerous ball into the 6-yard box, but thankfully for the visitors the ball evaded both Pelle and Mane, who were positioned in front of the stranded Begovic.
There was no change in personnel for neither side during the break, and the start of the second half heralded no change in tempo from the home side as they continued to drive forward at every available opportunity in a bid to extend their lead.
Three minutes had elapsed when Pelle leaped high above Marc Wilson and guided his header directly onto the underside of the crossbar – with Bardsley duly on hand to clear the danger with Tadic closing in on the free ball.
Hughes wasted little time in making his first change of the afternoon – replacing Scotland international Adam with the more direct Senegalese frontman, Diouf, just seven minutes after the restart.
The introduction of Marko Arnautovic soon followed – with Walters making way for the Austrian. He injected pace and craft into the side, which significantly aided the Potters’ chances of clawing their way back into a game which could have been beyond their reach at the break.
A bursting Diouf surge forward was brought to an abrupt halt by what had initially appeared to have been a clumsy challenge from Fonte inside the 18-yard box, although replays showed that the awarding of a penalty would have been harsh on the hosts.
Hughes’ side were dictating the tempo of the game as the half wore on, but whilst there was plenty of neat and tidy play in the central areas of the pitch, there was unfortunately a lack of killer instinct within the final third.
Ronald Koeman introduced midfielder Victor Wanyama and defender Florin Gardos in a bid to shore up his side during the latter stages of the clash, as the Potters pressed forward in search of a dramatic late leveller.
Unfortunately for all of the Stoke pressure there was to be no fight-back and Southampton stood firm to record all three points and elevate themselves up into second position – following Manchester City’s earlier shock defeat at the hands of West Ham United.