Report: Saints cruise to victory to close gap on leaders

Live Matchday Images/2023-24/20240416 Southampton vs Preston/106A6588_d52af4ec-c11e-4af2-b1fd-ca62b4acf34d_20240416085238_rxuipx

A scintillating first-half display propelled Southampton to within four points of the Sky Bet Championship automatic promotion places with a routine 3-0 home win over Preston.

All the goals came in the opening period, as Saints blew away a visiting team who arrived at St Mary’s with an outside chance of finishing in the top six.

Ché Adams scored twice, extending his fine form to five goals in five games and 17 for the season – 14 of which have come in his last 24 club appearances.

The recalled Stuart Armstrong added Saints’ third on 33 minutes, as the hosts produced a free-flowing performance that Preston simply could not handle.

Despite Saints’ best efforts to extend the lead after the interval, North End goalkeeper Freddie Woodman prevented further goals with particularly impressive saves to thwart the hat-trick hunting Adams and the silky smooth David Brooks.

Russell Martin initially made three changes to his side, but that soon became four when Gavin Bazunu went down injured in the warm-up.

Alex McCarthy, who was not named in the original squad and had featured since August, was promoted to starting duty, along with Jan Bednarek, Ryan Manning and Stuart Armstrong, as Jack Stephens, James Bree and Will Smallbone dropped to the bench following Saturday’s last-gasp win over Watford.

Alex McCarthy was a late addition to the Saints starting line-up less than an hour before kick-off

Preston, whose play-off hopes were hanging by a thread after their home defeat to Norwich, showed an early glimpse of their combativeness when Noah Mawene crashed into a tackle on Kyle Walker-Peters for the game’s first yellow card inside the opening 40 seconds.

Saints started brightly, but McCarthy was the first keeper to make a save, safely stooping to his left to keep out Mads Frøkjær-Jensen when the visitors launched their first counter-attack of the night.

But the hosts were keen to impose their superiority, and one slick move from their own half saw Flynn Downes surge into the box and help the ball inside for Manning, who went down in the box, but the contact with defender Andrew Hughes was shoulder to shoulder.

Preston boss Ryan Lowe, presumably wanting his namesake booked, was carded himself for his protestations.

It was a warning for the visitors, and Saints duly scored from their very next attack. A one-two between Brooks and Joe Aribo saw the winger come inside from the right and spread the play to Adam Armstrong on the left, whose low cross was perfect for the in-form Adams to convert from eight yards.

Ché Adams celebrates another goal as his recent hot streak continued

Saints’ growing confidence was demonstrated by Armstrong’s ambitious attempt to catch out Freddie Woodman soon after, spotting the goalkeeper off his line from a position wide on the left, 40 yards from goal, and was unlucky to see the ball drop on to the roof of Woodman’s net, prompting a wry smile from the relieved shot-stopper.

By now Saints were purring, and Martin’s men added a brilliant second goal just before the half-hour mark.

Following a sustained spell of possession in the Preston half, Manning fed the ball into Adams, whose deft backheel found Brooks, who instantly returned it to Adams for the red-hot striker to slot home without breaking stride.

This was Martin’s Saints vision in all its glory. Adams attempted a carbon copy of Armstrong’s attempted lob, from a similar distance albeit on the other side, and again Woodman backpedalled to see the ball land on top of his goal.

But Preston were powerless to prevent Saints pouring forward, and the third goal arrived four minutes after the second when an Adams cross was unconvincingly cleared by Duane Holmes straight to Stuart Armstrong.

With time to set himself from 20 yards, the Scot replicated his finish in the FA Cup at Watford with a disguised shot inside the near post that wrong-footed poor Woodman in the Preston goal.

Stuart Armstrong marked his recall with a typically composed finish

It was to be an eventful few minutes for Armstrong, who saw a free-kick saved and another goal-bound shot well blocked before letting fly from a similar position to his goal, this time with his left foot, and watching on as the ball struck the inside of Woodman’s left-hand post and rolled all the way across the line and out.

At half time Martin opted to rest the seemingly tireless Downes, introducing Shea Charles for the second period, as the one-way traffic continued.

Bednarek tried his luck with a rare shot from outside the box, subtly steering a placed effort narrowly wide, before Adams was denied a hat-trick by the sprawling Woodman from Manning’s low cross, although the offside flag was subsequently raised.

Adams was desperate to secure the matchball, and some sharp movement to deceive his marker and latch on to Walker-Peters’s lofted pass was matched by an exceptional first touch, only for Woodman to block his latest shot with a smart save.

Martin invited Joe Rothwell and Will Smallbone to the party with 20 minutes to go, and the latter soon set up Brooks for a shot that looked destined for the net until Woodman intervened with a flying save high to his left.

Manning and Rothwell also threatened to get in on the act with long-range strikes, with McCarthy a virtual spectator throughout a second half in which Saints were in cruise control.

It’s a result that cuts the gap to the top two to four points with four to play, including potentially pivotal trips to Leicester and Leeds.

All to play for.

Southampton: McCarthy, Walker-Peters, Harwood-Bellis, Bednarek, Manning, Downes (Charles 46), Aribo (Smallbone 70), S Armstrong (Rothwell 70), Brooks (Kamaldeen 83), Adams (Edozie 76), A Armstrong.

Unused substitutes: Lumley, Stephens, Bree, Fraser.

Goals: Adams (19’, 29’), S Armstrong (33’).

Preston: Woodman, Woodman, Storey, Lindsay, Hughes, Holmes (Cunningham 39), Whatmough (Ledson 71), Mawene (Browne 70), Brady (c), Frøkjær-Jensen, Osmajić (Evans 79), Riis (Keane 46).

Unused substitutes: Cornell, Best, Seary, Stewart.

Yellow cards: Mawene, Holmes.

Referee: Sam Barrott.

Attendance: 27,636.