Southampton slipped to within a point of the relegation zone as they failed to win for the ninth game in a row despite Shane Long’s first Premier League goal in 324 days.
Long’s early strike was cancelled out by to second half goals from James McArthur and a brilliant winner from Luka Milivojevic, who atoned for his missed penalty against Manchester City on New Year’s Eve. The home crowd, many of whom had left by full-time, vented their anger against their manager, Mauricio Pellegrino, who had been given the backing of his board earlier in the day.
The Southampton chairman Ralph Krueger yesterday admitted that the protracted Virgil Van Dijk transfer saga has loomed ominously over the first half of the club’s season and is expecting his exit to be the catalyst for an upturn in form.
That failed to happen against Crystal Palace as the Saints’ dismal home form continued and made relegation a very real possibility.
The Canadian-born German has also given his full backing to Saints manager Pellegrino, saying: “From the get-go, Mauricio has completely embraced the way we operate here. The transfer that has just gone through is the end of a very difficult phase for the club.”
Shane Long’s first Premier League goal for 324 days gave Saints the start they were after as the Irishman fired in form Jeremy Pied’s low cross on the sodden St Mary’s turf. Long’s relief was palpable and shared by his teammates who rushed to join him in celebration.
Pierre Emile-Hojbjerg is beginning to show some of the promise that prompted his £12m purchase from Bayern Munich at the beginning of last season. The Dane forced a superb fingertip save from Wayne Hennessey with a rising drive from 25 yards.
The Saints deserved their first-half lead though Palace looked dangerous on the break, predictably through Wilfried Zaha, when they attacked in wide areas.
This was not a night for pretty football and standing water on the pitch meant both teams frequently conceded possession in dangerous areas. But Palace created little of note in the first half and only tested their former goalkeeper Alex McCarthy once, when he pushed Andros Townsend’s low effort round the post.
The Eagles had a day less to prepare for this contest than their hosts and punishing fixtures against Arsenal and Manchester City over the festive period seemed to be taking their toll on Roy Hodgson’s side. They did finally create a good opening when Christian Benteke turned sharply to force a good low save from McCarthy.
Hodgson introduced Bakary Sako after an hour and he provided Palace with more energy and the catalyst for victory. Soon after the Eagles equalised when Benteke nodded down Townsend’s deep cross giving McArthur the chance to volley high into the net.
Saints’ fragile confidence was then fully exposed as the fell behind leading supporters to begin chants of “you’re getting sacked in the morning” against their manager. Townsend was again the provider, this time from the right as he found Milivojevic who swept home brilliantly from the edge of the area.
A hostile atmosphere ensued at the final whistle with the club now under great pressure to invest the Van Dijk riches wisely and quickly. Hodgson meanwhile can continue looking upward after a bruising run of festive fixtures.