Report: Clean sheet gives Saints the edge in play-off semi-final

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Southampton’s Sky Bet Championship play-off semi-final with West Brom will be decided at St Mary’s after the first leg finished goalless in the Black Country.

Albion made a fast start at The Hawthorns, forcing a flurry of early corners, but Saints soon got a grip on the game as Kyle Walker-Peters shot wide before Flynn Downes was denied by goalkeeper Alex Palmer and Adam Armstrong fired the rebound into the side-netting.

Alex McCarthy made important saves in each half to keep out Grady Diangana, while substitute Ross Stewart was only denied a first Saints goal by a miraculous stop from Palmer, who added to his league 18 clean sheets with another shutout.

Russell Martin made one enforced change to his last line-up of the regular season, with Ché Adams sidelined by injury, prompting Sékou Mara to take his place having started only four league games this term.

That meant a continuation of the two-pronged striker approach that proved so effective at Leeds, where top scorer Armstrong was back in the goals alongside Adams up front.

Albion, who named an unchanged side following their 3-0 home win over Preston on the final day, started with plenty of intent, winning three corners in the opening four minutes.

Brandon Thomas-Asante saw a shot blocked before Mikey Johnston rifled one wide as the hosts piled forward and pressed Saints into mistakes.

Flynn Downes was denied by Alex Palmer from Saints' best chance

Having weathered the early storm, Saints found a foothold, and were soon racking up the corners themselves.

With Jack Stephens given licence to step into midfield, Martin’s men built from the back and Joe Aribo fed the run of Walker-Peters down the right, whose low drive just skidded beyond the far post.

An even better chance followed in the 20th minute. Downes won the ball on the left touchline and combined with Aribo, whose return pass put his fellow midfielder through on goal in the inside-left position.

Goalkeeper Palmer stood up to shut down the angles and saved with his body, before the ball looped into the air and dropped kindly for Armstrong, who couldn’t quite wrap his right foot around the ball to direct his volley on target as he hit the side-netting.

Another Saints corner on the half-hour mark resulted in an instinctive overhead kick for Mara that flashed wide, but by this time the visitors had fully settled into the game and taken control of it.

West Brom had been dominated since their explosive start, but created a big chance of their own against the run of play.

Tom Fellows got the better of Ryan Manning down the right and stood up a chipped cross attacked powerfully by Diangana, whose downward header forced an impressive reaction save from McCarthy down to his right, as Saints survived a scare before half time.

1,996 away fans made the trip to The Hawthorns for Saints' first play-off match in 17 years

Fellows did the same thing early in the second period, as this time his cross was headed out by Harwood-Bellis only as far as Alex Mowatt, who volleyed wildly over.

The Baggies were growing in confidence again, and might have conceded from another cross on the hour mark.

Johnston darted beyond Armstrong and crossed from the left for Darnell Furlong, who met the ball with his studs at the far post but could only direct it wide with McCarthy rooted to the spot.

It seemed the game would follow the same path as the first Championship play-off semi-final, a goalless draw between Norwich and Leeds at Carrow Road, with neither team prepared to risk falling behind in the tie.

Martin made a triple change with 20 minutes left, introducing Ryan Fraser, David Brooks and Stewart in place of Manning, Mara and Armstrong, shifting Stephens to left-back as Saints switched from 3-5-2 to 4-3-3.

Goalkeeper Palmer kept out Ross Stewart's deflected shot, denying the striker a first Saints goal

Both sides traded major moments in a frantic passage of play 12 minutes from time, completely out of character with an otherwise cagey second half.

Fellows, West Brom’s biggest threat, embarked on another run down the right, this time beating Stephens before crossing low for Diangana, who was denied by a crucial low save from McCarthy.

As the goalkeeper parried the ball to safety, Saints immediately counter-attacked as Stewart chased a ball over the top out to the left, stepped inside and hit a 20-yard shot that took a deflection that looked like beating Palmer until the stopper miraculously adjusted to keep the substitute at bay.

Albion boss Carlos Corberan took the unusual approach of making a quadruple change inside the last ten minutes with his side defending a corner, but Saints could not fashion a chance.

The home team pushed for a winner with six minutes added on, but it’s advantage Saints ahead of the second leg at St Mary’s on Friday night.

West Brom: Palmer, Furlong, Bartley (c), Kipré, Townsend (Reach 90), Yokuslu (Ajayi 81), Mowatt, Fellows (Wallace 81), Diangana, Johnston (M’Vila 81), Thomas-Asante (Swift 81).

Unused substitutes: Griffiths, Chalobah, Phillips, Weimann.

Yellow cards: Johnston.

Southampton: McCarthy, Walker-Peters, Harwood-Bellis, Stephens (c), Bednarek, Manning (Fraser 71), Downes, Smallbone, Aribo, A Armstrong (Stewart 71), Mara (Brooks 71).

Unused substitutes: Lumley, Bree, Charles, Rothwell, Edozie, Kamaldeen.

Yellow cards: Downes, Harwood-Bellis.

Referee: Samuel Barrott.