Built on Saints
The Italian Job: One night at St Mary's
St Mary’s has played host to more than 400 Southampton matches over the past two decades, but one surely stands above the rest: the night Saints conquered a European giant.
Internazionale were 18 times Italian champions and three times kings of Europe when they arrived in humble Hampshire in November 2016.
The comparison as recently as 2010 could hardly be more stark. Whilst Inter were winning the Champions League to secure an historic treble under José Mourinho, Saints were playing in League One and celebrating victory in the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy.
Fast-forward six years and 7,000 Saints had descended on Milan, housed in the middle tier of the San Siro – this grand old monument of world football that has hosted so many of the game’s greats – to see a much-changed side come up short despite dominating their illustrious opponents, for whom goalkeeper Samir Handanović was their best player.
Manager Claude Puel made only one change to his defeated team for the return fixture – five alterations from the most recent Premier League encounter, against Chelsea, as the Frenchman continued to rotate his squad, battling on multiple fronts.
This was new territory for Saints, who were embarking on their first European group stage campaign and would go on to play 53 competitive matches in a gruelling 2016/17 season, including the EFL Cup final.
Their reception was like none other in the stadium’s 20-year history. A capacity crowd greeted their heroes with 30,000 red and white flags and a roar loud enough to travel across the Solent.
“I came down south to the club in 1984 and I’ve not seen a crowd up for it like they’re up for it tonight,” Dave Merrington remarked on the BBC.
Within 45 seconds of kick-off, the buoyant home support urged Saints into a crossing position, as Dušan Tadić picked out Jay Rodriguez for a header that flashed wide.
Rodriguez threatened again, as did Nathan Redmond, as Saints took the game to Inter, but it was the visitors who struck the first blow on 33 minutes.
Antonio Candreva, scorer of the only goal at the San Siro, picked out Ivan Perišić from the byeline, whose shot was blocked by Cuco Martina but fell kindly for Mauro Icardi to drill the ball inside Fraser Forster’s near post from eight yards.
Searching for a way back into the game, Saints were handed a reprieve – quite literally – in a frantic end to the first half.
With the one added minute about to draw to a close, Perišić was penalised for handball after Pierre-Emile Højbjerg played the ball against his elbow, before Candreva was only punished with a yellow card for a stray arm in the face of Sam McQueen in the ensuing melee.
With just about enough time to take the spot-kick, Tadić was foiled by familiar foe Handanović, who blocked the penalty with his legs to deflate the half-time entertainment as the Nerazzurri escaped with their lead intact.
Undeterred, Saints got back to work after the restart. James Ward-Prowse, who had only turned 22 two days earlier, twice tested Handanović from distance with clean connections on his deadly right foot, underlining his credentials as a man with the right temperament for the big occasion.
In the 64th minute, with the pressure growing on the Inter goal, Saints were awarded a pair of corners in quick succession.
From the first of those, Virgil van Dijk forced another fine save from the imperious Handanović, whose tip over forced the second, from which the Slovenian was finally beaten.
It was a strange sort of goal. Tadić’s delivery bounced around inside the penalty area, Oriol Romeu hooked an unorthodox shot against the crossbar, and van Dijk poached like a seasoned striker to sweep home the rebound from six yards.
Five minutes later, the growing buzz inside St Mary’s turned to pure pandemonium, as Saints scored again to dramatically turn the game on its head at the midpoint of the second half.
Tadić, always involved, sent in an awkward cross that took a deflection and made life difficult for Yuto Nagatomo, who expected his teammate to deal with the danger but could only watch in horror as the ball bounced up off his thigh and spun into the corner of the net. Not even Handanović could see that coming.
Inter had been virtually non-existent as an attacking force since the goal, but triumphant cries of “Olé” proved premature when Romeu gifted the ball to Icardi, only for Forster to thwart his dipping shot.
That particular fright in Halloween week was no more than a false alarm, as Saints marched on to new heights and St Mary’s claimed a major pinch-yourself moment.
“It’s been a great night and a spectacular game for the fans especially, and I felt we deserved that win,” said the talismanic figure of van Dijk, captain on the night.
“I think we need to enjoy it, and the club does too because we have come so far. Everyone around the club can be very proud and I’m very proud of my team as well.”
"The reaction and the strong character of my team was fantastic,” added Puel, who had masterminded a famous win in the club’s history.
Five years on, with Ward-Prowse now indispensable to the team and a symbol of the city, the current skipper reflects on one of the unforgettable highs of a Saints career spanning almost as many appearances as the stadium itself.
“That was a special night,” he smiles. “It’s one of those moments in your career when you have to look around, come away from the intensity of the game and actually see where you are and what you’re doing.
“As a kid growing up in the Academy, you just want to be a professional footballer making that first appearance, but here you are playing at home in front of a packed stadium against one of the biggest clubs in Italy, and even the world.
“I’ve never been so tired after a game as after that one. It was a mentally tough game, a physically tough game, but probably one of the best moments and best games in a Southampton shirt, for sure.
“To be there against Inter Milan and to beat them the way we did sent the whole club wild.”
Whilst countless more memories will follow at St Mary’s in the decades to come, the legacy of Southampton’s very own Italian job is forever etched into the stadium’s history.