Southampton began 2023 with a bitterly disappointing defeat to Nottingham Forest at St Mary’s.
The visitors struck the only goal of the game after 27 minutes, as the jet-heeled Brennan Johnson pounced on a mistake in the Saints backline and squared the ball for Taiwo Awoniyi to score with the only shot on target all night.
By that time, both teams had already traded wasted opportunities, with Ché Adams and Johnson guilty of missing the target from very presentable openings.
Chances were in short supply after the goal, as Saints enjoyed plenty of second-half possession but were unable to turn that into anything of note, as Forest celebrated their first away victory of the campaign.
Nathan Jones made three changes to his side following the New Year’s Eve defeat at Fulham, including a first start since the mid-season break for Roméo Lavia at the base of the Saints midfield.
Elsewhere, Romain Perraud and Sékou Mara were recalled, the latter for his first Premier League start in three months, as Ainsley Maitland-Niles, Joe Aribo and Samuel Edozie made way.
To say Forest have struggled on their travels this season would be an understatement – the Reds had only scored once away from home – and Saints were straight on the front foot.
Adams spurned a golden chance inside seven minutes, escaping in behind the visiting backline to latch on to Kyle Walker-Peters’s ball over the top.
The ball dropped kindly for Adams, who used the time afforded to him to let it bounce into his path, but then dragged his shot wide of the far post from 12 yards.
It was a huge let off for Forest, but Saints were next to breathe a sigh of relief as Johnson missed an even easier chance at the other end.
Awoniyi spun in behind Armel Bella-Kotchap before squaring the ball for Morgan Gibbs-White, who stepped over it for Ryan Yates to shoot.
When Yates completely scuffed his 20-yard effort, it fell perfectly for Johnson, who could take a touch and pick his spot, but inexplicably fired against the top of the crossbar from the edge of the six-yard box.
Both sides had traded clear-cut openings, and remained committed to the attack – this was no cagey affair.
For James Ward-Prowse, a free-kick in shooting territory is close to a clear-cut opening, and the captain would have been disappointed not to make the most of a set-piece in prime position after Mohamed Elyounoussi was fouled.
Perhaps the presence of a bright yellow shirt frantically retreating to the goal line as Ward-Prowse started his routine spooked the skipper, whose strike duly cleared the crossbar.
The Forest response came in the form of a low cross-shot from Gibbs-White that narrowly evaded Awoniyi and Yates at the far post.
The visitors were gaining belief, but it was a gift from their hosts that presented the opportunity to break the deadlock on 27 minutes.
Lyanco’s square pass to Mohammed Salisu sold his teammate short, allowing the speedy Johnson to steal in and accelerate away from the Saints defence.
With Awoniyi charging forward in support, the Welshman kept his composure to square the ball across goal for the scorer to gleefully lash into the net.
Things got worse for Saints on the half-hour when Bella-Kotchap was writhing in pain on the touchline, clutching his right knee after an innocuous coming together with Gibbs-White.
Though the German was able to limp down the tunnel and did not require a stretcher, he was unable to continue, as Duje Ćaleta-Car took his place, occupying the central position as Lyanco shifted to the right side of Saints’ three-man defence.
St Mary’s craved a reaction, but Saints seemed unable to summon one, as Forest continued to grow in confidence.
Gibbs-White crossed for Yates, who could not direct his header on target, but the home fans were restless and understandably so.
The second half started slowly too, with Ćaleta-Car hesitant in possession and Awoniyi confident enough to step on to the loose ball and hit it first time from 35 yards, but Gavin Bazunu always knew the ambitious attempt was sailing over.
Slowly but surely, Saints began to stamp their authority on a game with obvious significance at the foot of the Premier League table.
The Forest defence began to creak, as Willy Boly sliced a clearance behind for a corner, and Jones smelled blood, making a triple substitution with 25 minutes to go.
Adam Armstrong joined Aribo and Edozie in coming on for Mara, Perraud and the tiring Lavia.
But still Saints were unable to carve out a notable chance. Stuart Armstrong was introduced with six minutes left, which extended to ten including added time, but there was no way through for a home team capable of so much more.