Saints rounded off their pre-season campaign with defeat to an impressive Udinese side at St Mary’s.
The Italians who begin their qualification for the Champions League in the coming days displayed a master-class in finishing with four supremely well-taken goals that would not have looked out of place in Europe’s premier competition.
Antonio Di Natale’s brace of strikes including a stunning long range drive were added to by efforts of equal quality from Willians and a slick finish from substitute Luis Muriel in the second half to seal the win.
The goals aside, Nigel Adkins’ men enjoyed a large percentage of possession and the link up play between the players will also have given the manager plenty of food for thought as he prepares to finalise his starting XI for the Barclays Premier League curtain-raiser at the Etihad Stadium in a week’s time.
Saints: K. Davis (Gazzaniga 46), Clyne, Fonte, Hooiveld, Fox (Shaw 46), Schneiderlin, Ward-Prowse (S. Davis 46), Lallana, Puncheon (Guly 66), Lambert (Sharp 46), Rodriguez (Chaplow 80). Subs (not used): Richardson.
Udinese: Brkic, Pereyra (Zielinski 76), Willians, Danilo, Pinzi (Faraoni 66), Basta (Allan 80), Maicousel (Muriel 46), Di Natale (Fabbrini 66), Domizzi, Benatia (Coda 76), Armero (Silva 76). Subs (not used): Romo, Neuton, Battocchio, Heurtaux, Pawlowski.
Referee: Mike Dean
Attendance: 3,744 (including 74 away)
Adkins named an 18 man squad on the eve of the new campaign, with a front three of Puncheon, Lambert, and Rodriguez spearheading the attack.
Jose Fonte skippered the side once more as Ward-Prowse and Lallana got the match underway with Saints attacking the Northam stand on a bright and mild evening inside St Mary’s.
The hosts immediately got stuck into their opponents, making an efficient use of the ball. On numerous occasions they broke forward to good effect down both flanks to boot as they knocked the ball around with purpose.
Saints were particularly bright on the left side where Rodriguez brought Lambert into play, but the Italians proved to be resilient opposition, even managing to mask a foul on Lambert inside the area where the home side’s appeals for a spot kick fell on deaf ears.
Udinese - who lined up in a changed strip of lime green - offered a reminder of what they are capable of on 6 when Pablo Amero unleashed a stinging drive towards goal, but Kelvin Davis was more than equal to it as he caught the shot on the turn.
However, there was unfortunately nothing that the ‘keeper could do about a stunning long range drive from visiting captain Antonio DI NATALE in the 12th minute. The forward’s bolt from the blue around 25 yards out was an unstoppable effort which flew into the top left corner as the Italians celebrated an early lead.
Adkins’ men searched for a swift response with Hooiveld nearly meeting Fox’s corner at the near post, before Saints moved up a gear in midfield with both Puncheon and Ward-Prowse threading passes through into inviting positions in the final third.
On 20 Dusan Basta tried his luck from range in a bid to emulate his skipper’s goal a few moments earlier, but his strike was covered by Davis as it drifted out of play.
Incredibly, the visitors were able to repeat their feat of scoring from distance when Brazilian midfielder WILLIANS fired home another audacious strike which Davis again had no chance of keeping out as it flew into the top corner with 24 minutes on the watch.
Saints again looked for an early reply, but Rodriguez was foiled by Udiense ‘keeper Zeljko Brkic who produced a good one handed save to prevent the forward’s header from Schneiderlin’s right wing cross going in.
Puncheon made Brkic work once more, this time forcing him to make a low save down to his right with the second Udinese goal clearly not dampening the hosts’ determination to get back into the game.
Perhaps encouraged by the earlier goals, even Hooiveld was next up to go for goal from distance, but the centre back’s strike was more defender than centre forward on this occasion as it cleared the bar.
It was 0-3 however though on 36 minutes when Armero’s deep cross to the far post was cushioned back by Basta and clinically finished by DI NATALE who grabbed his second of the game in style on the volley inside the area.
The closest Saints came to a reply before the break saw Puncheon pick out Rodriguez in the area, but the forward couldn’t get enough power in his header to seriously trouble Brkic.
Half Time: Saints 0-3 Udinese
Adkins made four changes at the break with Gazzaniga, Sharp, Shaw, and Steven Davis replacing Kelvin Davis, Lambert, Fox, and Ward-Prowse respectively. The visitors also made a change with Luis Muriel coming on in place of Maicosuel.
Sharp immediately went close to finding the back of the net when he got on the end of Puncheon’s cross to the far post, but his header was just off target.
It was a bright start to the second period from the hosts though whose neat football was almost rewarded when Lallana played the ball from the centre into the path of Steven Davis inside the area, and the Northern Irishman cleverly laid it on to Puncheon, whose shot crept inches wide of the far post.
Saints were nearly caught out in their attempts to get back into the game when Hooiveld’s pass was intercepted allowing Di Natale to break, and as the forward went to cut the ball back across goal it ricocheted off Shaw and fortunately on to the post.
Gazzaniga was called into action to keep out Luis Muriel inside the box at the far post, but the substitute was not to be denied a goal in the 64th minute as MURIEL collected Di Natale’s pass to calmly slot home from eight yards out to stretch the visitors’ lead.
Udinese immediately withdrew Pinzi and Di Natale with Diego Fabbrini and Marco Davide Faraoni coming on in their places. At the same time Guly replaced Puncheon for the home side.
Faraoni tried his luck from range to no avail before the visitors made a triple change as play entered the final quarter with Andrea Coda, Gabriel Silva, and Piotr Zielinski each replacing Benatia, Armero, and Pereyra.
Guly – once of Italian side Cesena - fired a free-kick wide prior to another change apiece with Chaplow replacing Rodriguez and Allan coming on for Basta with ten minutes remaining.
The match fizzled out somewhat after the changes, but it was a game that Adkins’ side will have taken much from ahead of the new campaign.
Full Time: Saints 0-4 Udinese