Saints U23s got their PL Cup campaign off to the perfect start courtesy of a 2-1 win over Leeds United at Staplewood Campus on Friday night.
A hard-fought and physical encounter was decided by Michael Obafemi’s expertly taken finish from just inside the penalty area - the striker’s fourth goal of the season in all competitions - and Callum Slattery’s late penalty after Leeds’ Kun Mihaylov had briefly levelled.
The goalscoring pair – eye-catching throughout – provided the two clear moments of clinical finishing for Saints who were pegged back by Leeds for large periods in the second half.
The hosts headed into the Friday night meeting having seen an unbeaten start to the campaign hamstrung by defeats to Aston Villa and Reading in recent weeks and can now begin targeting at least a repeat performance when they reached the knockout stages of this competition last season.
There were no signs of a hangover however as they set about taking control of the opening exchanges with a intense visiting side who had lost just once themselves all season.
Yan Valery might have had Saints in front inside four minutes, the Frenchman surging down the right before forcing ‘keeper Kamil Miazek into a smart save low to his right. The visitors almost struck back immediately, Robbie Gotts heading straight at Jack Rose when unmarked at the back post.
As has been the case throughout the campaign, Saints were able to ease any pressure with the threat of Obafemi running in behind and the striker had a clear sight of goal even before opening the scoring on 31 minutes.
Slattery’s clearance looked nothing more than hopeful before the 18-year-old outpaced his marker down the touchline before stabbing a shot into the legs of the onrushing Miazek from the edge of the six-yard box.
Leeds’s Aapo Halme was unfortunate to see his downward header scooped off the line by the influential Slattery and it was a crucial intervention given what was to follow.
With Saints firmly in the ascendancy, skipper Thomas O’Connor strode forward from the back and fed Obafemi in the box to control, twist, turn and arrow into the net via a heavy touch from the goalkeeper. It was no less than Jaïdi’s charges deserved.
One perhaps ought to have been three within minutes of the restart. A turnover in the full-back position sent Marcus Barnes on his way to glide the length of the field down the Leeds right, only to skew his chipped effort off target with Miazek already committed.
Moments later, Slattery was side-footing tamely at the keeper after Obafemi’s run and cut-back had picked out the advancing and totally unmarked midfielder on the edge of the penalty area.
It was a sign of what was to come as the patience and probing of the first half gave way to a breathless second.
Will Smallbone had volleyed into a defender from Jake Vokins’s exquisite back-post cross as Saints looked to press home their advantage and the midfielder was left to rue his misfortune shortly afterwards as an improved Leeds struck back to level.
There looked to be little on as defender Hugo Diaz collected possession partway into the Saints half yet the Spaniard had other ideas, floating a undefendable pass into the path of Kun Mihaylov to slide past Jack Rose and equalise.
Barnes was denied by Miazek a point-black range following good work from Alexandre Jankewitz as Saints looked to reclaim the lead they had worked so hard to establish.
Endeavour redoubled, they weren’t made to wait long despite facing increasing pressure from Leeds at the other end and it was a goal made and converted by Slattery.
The midfielder’s devilish low cross attracted a lunging challenge on Obafemi with the striker ready to turn home on the goal-line and Saints U23’s number eight coolly converted from the spot from the resulting penalty to add a goal to his early assist.
An away onslaught on Rose’s goal inevitably followed but this lead was not to be surrendered. Back to winning ways and off the mark in a fifth potential piece of silverware of the season.