Saints head into play-offs after win at Leeds

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Southampton will head into a play-off semi-final against West Bromwich Albion after finishing the regular portion of the Championship season with an encouraging 2-1 win at Leeds United.

Saints will visit The Hawthorns next Sunday for the first leg of their tie, as the Baggies leapt above Norwich on the last day of the campaign to finish fifth.

The identity of their opponents was the big matter to be decided here for Russell Martin’s side, but also of importance was how they went into the play-offs, after coming into this match on a run of three consecutive defeats

What the Saints boss witnessed at Elland Road would undoubtedly have pleased him, as his side produced an impressive display, taking three points thanks to first-half goals from Adam Armstrong and Will Smallbone, which sandwiched a strike from Joël Piroe.

Ahead of kick-off, the most significant team news for the visitors was not actually in the starting line-up, but on the bench, where Ross Stewart made his return.

It was a first appearance in a matchday squad for the striker since the game at Huddersfield in late November, following an extended absence through injury, as he made a potentially timely comeback ahead of the play-offs.

Ross Stewart made a long-awaited return to the matchday squad (Photo: Matt Watson)

While Stewart’s presence was the most notable one, there were also some sweeping alterations to the starting team, as Russell Martin made six changes from the side that lost to Stoke a week earlier.

Sékou Mara missed out through a minor injury, while James Bree, Shea Charles, David Brooks, Sam Edozie and Ryan Fraser dropped to the bench, with Jan Bednarek, Ryan Manning, Flynn Downes, Joe Aribo, Armstrong and Ché Adams all replacing them.

It all led to a shift in formation, with Saints starting with three centre-backs, as Bednarek played in the middle, with Taylor Harwood-Bellis to his right and Jack Stephens to his left, allowing Kyle Walker-Peters and Manning to play in more advanced full-back roles.

From the start, it was a fast-paced game, with both sides taking a positive approach.

Saints were unfortunate on 11 minutes when Downes went on a charging run through the heart of the Leeds defence and appeared to be brought down unfairly by Ethan Ampadu just outside the box, but referee Matt Donohue did not feel it was a foul.

After Alex McCarthy saved from a Junior Firpo free-kick at the other end, Saints went back up the pitch and carved out a big chance on 17 minutes.

It came from a Walker-Peters run, as he slipped a perfectly-weighted pass into the right side of the area for the run of Smallbone, but his low shot was saved by the on-rushing Illan Meslier.

But the resulting corner did lead to Saints finding the net. While Manning’s delivery was initially cleared, Downes kept it alive with a clever flick back over his head to Adams, whose low delivery from the left found Armstrong and he flashed a left-footed strike past Meslier to make it 1-0.

Adam Armstrong fires Saints in front (Photo: Matt Watson)

Leeds, needing a win to have any chance of finishing second, immediately set about restoring parity, and it needed McCarthy to make a smart stop from Wilfried Gnonto’s low effort in the area on 20 minutes to keep Saints in front.

Moments later, though, the hosts did level the game.

It was a disappointing one for Saints, as Sam Byram stole the ball off Stephens 30 yards out and played it to Gnonto down the inside right. His low cross was straight at Harwood-Bellis, but he miscued his clearance, sending it straight to Piroe on the edge of the box, and his powerful shot took a slight deflection on its way into the bottom corner.

Saints were almost back in front in the 28th minute, when Manning saw a shot from 18 yards deflected agonisingly wide, before also going close from the resulting corner, as Smallbone’s delivery was flicked on by Armstrong and almost turned in at the back post by Adams, only for Ilia Gruev to somehow scramble it clear.

A well-deserved second goal wasn’t far off, though, and they duly got it seven minutes later.

Bednarek’s beautiful, angled pass from deep was kept in at the byline by Walker-Peters, who turned, breezed past Firpo and into the area, before playing a low pass to the near post, where Smallbone had arrived to finish coolly with his right foot.

Will Smallbone is congratulated on his goal (Photo: Matt Watson)

Gnonto then missed a decent chance to equalise, dragging a low shot wide from just outside the corner of the six-yard box after being played in, while back at the other end Harwood-Bellis went close to a third for Saints, looping a header from a Manning free-kick off the top of the bar.

Half time brought one change in personnel for Saints, as Fraser replaced Manning, who had picked up a yellow card during the opening 45 minutes, and Fraser went close to making it 3-1 soon after the restart, curling a shot narrowly over from 18 yards after being found by an Aribo pass.

On 58 minutes, Martin’s side did get the ball in the back of the net again, only for it to be ruled out for offside, as Armstrong raced onto a through pass from Adams before rounding Meslier.

It proved to be the last action for Adams, as the striker pulled up after playing the pass and required some treatment. He was soon back on his feet and walked off unaided, but Saints made a change – hopefully out of caution only – as Kamaldeen took his place for the final half an hour.

Ché Adams receives treatment before being substituted (Photo: Matt Watson)

Another change followed shortly after, as Downes, who was excellent once again, made way for Joe Rothwell.

Saints were managing the game well, and by this point the atmosphere had understandably dipped inside Elland Road, with Ipswich comfortably leading Huddersfield, leaving Leeds also facing the prospect of the play-offs to try to make an immediate return to the Premier League.

The hosts did continue to seek something out of this contest, though, and Crysencio Summerville tested McCarthy with a shot across goal with a little under 15 minutes left, but the Saints keeper was equal to it, palming it away to safety.

Martin was then able to introduce Stewart on 83 minutes for his long-awaited return, replacing the outstanding Armstrong, while the equally excellent Walker-Peters was withdrawn for Bree.

It meant some valuable minutes for Stewart, who won a free-kick 20 yards out in the 89th minute, with Smallbone curling a subsequent low shot around the Leeds wall and inches wide of the post.

As the game edged into added time, Smallbone was penalised for a foul on Summerville just outside the Saints box, but Summerville's free-kick slammed into the wall, as Saints held on for a deserved victory.

Of course, it may not be the last meeting between these teams this season, but, before that could become a reality, both must now deal with the play-off semi-finals.

And, for Saints, it is West Brom who stand between them and Wembley.

Leeds United: Meslier, Byram (Roberts 78), Firpo, Rodon, Ampadu (captain), Gruev (Gelhardt 82), Kamara (Gray 62), Summerville, Gnonto (Anthony 62), Rutter (Joseph 62), Piroe.

Unused substitutes: Darlow, Cooper, Cresswell, Shackleton.

Goals: Piroe (21’).

Yellow cards: Gnonto, Gruev, Piroe.

Southampton: McCarthy, Walker-Peters (Bree 83), Harwood-Bellis, Stephens (captain), Bednarek, Manning (Fraser 46), Downes (Rothwell 68), Smallbone, Aribo, Adam Armstrong (Stewart 83), Adams (Kamaldeen 61).

Unused substitutes: Lumley, Charles, Edozie, Brooks.

Goals: Armstrong (18’), Smallbone (35’).

Yellow cards: Manning, Bednarek, Rothwell.

Referee: Matt Donohue.